Update: Tom from the story reminded me that there’s an epilogue, so I included it.
It’s been ages since I’ve posted a dating-gone-wrong story on this blog, but I try to keep my disastrous dating experiences down to once a decade.
In the nineties, there was Worst Date Ever, and in the first decade of the 2000s, there’s The Girl Who Cried Webmaster. I do have one from this decade that I alluded to in a 2011 post titled February — Blog Later. I think enough time has passed that I can tell this tale and we can all have a good laugh. It’s about the first date-like opportunity I had after my separation, and yes, hilarity did ensue.
In the interest of shaming no one other than myself, I’ve changed a few details (primarily names and places) to protect the innocent. If there is any blame to be handed out in this story, it’s all on me; I’m the one who messed up.
With that little detail out of the way, grab a drink or snack — this entry’s a little longer — and enjoy!
Of course they’d hold a week-long geek event starting on Valentine’s Day, I thought. Lucky for me, my schedule’s wide open this year.
This was a couple of years back — a warm Friday night in San Francisco, early February 2011. I was there for a number of reasons:
- To attend a big technology conference, where I’d be doing a presentation on the technology I was evangelizing at the time,
- To catch up with friends and family in the Bay Area, and
- To put some distance between me and home for a little while.
The previous couple of months had been the worst of my life. The Missus asked for a divorce shortly after my birthday in November and moved out over the Christmas holiday. That situation, combined with a killer flu bug going around town landed me in the ICU for a week in January, plus another week under my mother’s care (she’s a doctor) at her house.
Work wasn’t helping either: while my immediate manager was one of the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure of reporting to and my teammates were all great people to work with, upper management seemed to be doing their damnedest to turn the environment into one more backstabby than Borgia-era Italy. I’d been made aware that one particularly douchey manager was actively undermining my work, sending poison emails to other people within the organization. It seemed that management’s mantra was “Influence if you can, scare if you must”, which the most dedicated career strivers seemed to interpret as “Scare! Intimidate! Make them crap their pants!”
Of course, once you’ve struggled for breath alone in a darkened emergency room, wondering why no one will answer the emergency call button you’re furiously pressing, asking yourself all the while if this is what it feels like to die, neither the prospect of being single again nor any stuffed-shirt pointless popinjay of a middle manager can ever put The Fear into you.
As the only (newly) single member of my team, it was easy to convince my manager to give me all the travel assignments that the others — for marriage-, family-, and even sanity-preserving reasons — couldn’t take. For the next couple of months, I would spend three weeks out of every month on the road, and on the company’s dime. I’d keep myself busy with work and use whatever downtime I got to sort things out in my head and starting putting together the answer to the questions that had been plaguing me since the breakup:
- Should I move to a new place, or stay?
- Should I quit and look for a new job?
- Should I set up a dating profile?
- How do I explain the CPAP to a girl who “sleeps over”?
- Or, to summarize: What now?
I normally don’t drink alone, but I decided that if the double-whammy of divorce and near-death wasn’t good a excuse for it, what was?
The sun hadn’t completely sunk behind the skyline on that evening as I pondered the “what now?” question over a slightly spotty tumbler of Maker’s Mark in a bar in that sketchy transitional area that’s not quite Union Square, not quite the notorious Tenderloin. The barkeep had thrown in a large glob of ice, which I scooped out with my hand and chucked into a glass that had been abandoned by a guy in a Threadless T-shirt, skinny jeans and a pair cheap sunglasses with saucer-like lenses, which looked ridiculous in the dimly-lit dive. My original plan was to hang out in my hotel room until Tom, a local friend who’d invited me to an evening outing with his pals, called with the details. However, I’d decided that I’d spent more than enough time cooped up in various rooms, so I threw my accordion on my back and set out to wander the streets of San Francisco for a while. I ended up at the bar after about an hour of being a flâneur.
I was part of the way through my second Maker’s Mark when a text message appeared on my phone detailing the evening’s plan: first, drinks at Butter, followed by catching the Bootie mash-up DJ crew at the DNA Lounge. Having lived in the city before — and having had a rather unforgettable bachelorette party experience at Butter a number of years back — I knew where these places were.
When I walked into Butter, Tom saw me immediately and waved me over to join his group. They were about ten people in total, and an even mix of guys and girls. After some introductions and a starting round of drinks, I ended up spending most of my time chatting with Lindsey, a very San Francisco-looking girl in a summer dress, scarf and short blonde locks. Over bourbon and tater tots (Butter specializes in the finest microwave cuisine), we talked about what seemed to be every topic under the sun. I distinctly remember the topic of pets, Burning Man, the Toronto scene, and — of course — the accordion. I was enjoying myself, only once or twice feeling a bit strange about chatting up a woman who wasn’t my wife. Or ex-wife. Or eventual-ex-wife. Whatever the term was.
I am single, I told myself. I am flush with cash. I am reasonably good-looking, well-dressed and can chat up strangers. And I have an accordion.
A couple of hours later, we made our way to the DNA Lounge, which was filling up with people to see Bootie:
“PBRs all ’round!” commanded Tom, and moments later, we were on the dance floor with ice-cold cans in hand. I shook my tailfeathers like a tipsy, newly-freed Nelson Mandela with an accordion on his back.
When the DJs started playing a tune that used the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams as its bed track, I started playing along on the squeezebox. The DJs took notice and pulled me on stage, planting a microphone on the accordion’s sound holes. I know a rock star opportunity when it presents itself, so I squeezed hard and started jamming along, which brought great applause from the crowd.
Best mid-life crisis ever, I thought.
My next few days were taken up by the conference. I did a presentation, attended a lot of sessions, did some hands-on labs, went to usual mixers — all the sort of stuff you’re supposed to do at a geek get-together.
The conference ran from Monday to Friday, with the big conference party taking place Thursday night. It wasn’t going to be all that exciting, so I’d arranged to meet Tom later that night in Soma. I hung out at the conference party for an hour or so, joined the band in the jam room to do a couple of classic rock numbers, and grabbed a couple of canapes. I was thinking about getting something more substantial to eat when I got a text message from Tom. He was in his car at the conference hotel’s front entrance.
When I stepped out of the hotel, I was pleasantly surprised to see Lindsey in the passenger seat.
“I hope I’m not interfering in your male bonding,” she said with a smile.
“And here I was, planning to get all Brokeback Mountain with Joey,” Tom said.
“I call outside spoon,” I replied.
The plan was to drop Tom’s car off at home, give him a few minutes to walk his dog, and then make our way to a nearby night spot for drinks. Lindsey and I sat around and chatted while Tom walked the dog. That’s when we noticed the orange sports car. We decided to give it a closer look.
“Lotus,” I said, trying to get a look at the dashboard. “Niiiiice.”
“Look at it!” said Lindsey, who seemed greatly amused by the arrangement of its headlights and grille. “It looks like it’s smiling.”
“You really should pose with it,” I said. “It’s the sort of car that demands poses.”
Lindsey obliged and struck some Maxim-esque poses by the car’s front grill while I took pictures.
“Oh yeah, this is HOT!” I said, snapping away.
Tom walked in on our photo shoot, shook his head and said “I don’t even want to know.”
We made our way to a nearby tavern — I forget its name — took three stools by the bar and ordered a round of drinks. We conversed for a while, but it soon became clear that Tom was fading.
“Look, guys,” Tom said as he took the last swig of his Old Fashioned, “I’m dead tired. It’s been a long week, and as much as I’d love to stay, I really need to get some sack time. You guys okay if I bail and leave you two alone?”
“We’re having a great time. We’ll be all right,” replied Lindsey.
“Not a problem,” I said, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible. “Get some sleep, and I’ll ping you tomorrow.”
Tom fist-bumped me, hugged Lindsey and made his way towards the door. I moved over to the stool beside Lindsey, and waved the bartender over.
“Two sazeracs, please,” I said, rather pleased with the way things had turned out.
Lindsey and I started talking about music. We both came of age in the eighties, so the conversation naturally drifted to that era’s music. She told me that she liked going to local clubs with eighties nights or catching Bootie shows, since their mash-up source material was often eighties hits.
“Do you know any eighties stuff on the accordion?” she asked.
“That’s how I got started,” I replied.
“Could you pleeeease play some? I’ll sing along.”
Lindsey looked so cute and asked so sweetly, and let’s face it, this sort of thing is precisely why I started carrying the accordion around in the first place. I played, and we sang Duran Duran’s Rio, The Cult’s She Sells Sanctuary, Depeche Mode’s Just Can’t Get Enough and The Violent Femmes’ Kiss Off, all in the far corner of the bar, which we had all to ourselves.
“You’re a really cool guy,” Lindsey said. “Remember last Friday night, when we were out at DNA with my friends? They absolutely loved you! You’re awesome. You should hang out with us when you’re in town.”
“I’d love that,” I said.
At one point in the evening, the bartender saw fit to walk up to us and say “You two are by far the cutest people in the room tinight” with a big grin. “Come back any time.”
Most of the credit would have to go to Lindsey. She was wonderful company: adorable, funny and just so easy to talk to.
This, I thought, is exactly what the doctor ordered.
“Do you want to go get something to eat?” Lindsey asked. “I’ve had mostly nothing but drinks tonight.”
“Yeah, I could eat,” I said. “I mostly grazed at the conference and could use a late dinner. Is there anything around here? I’ll buy.”
“I know a place close by,” she said.
She took my hand in hers, putting her fingers between mine and led me downstairs and to the street outside. We walked at a slow-ish pace, hand in hand down the street, with her leaning up close against me. I took in a deep breath and caught the scent from her hair. Ever since I was a teenager, I have believed that “girly shampoo on actual girl” is one of the best smells in the world, surpassing even freshly-cooked bacon or a new just-out-of-the-box Macbook.
The evening had just been elevated to…a date? Okay, maybe a non-date.
The place she picked out was only a couple of blocks away, and perfect. It was a little cafe-bistro with alt-rock playing on the sound system (when we arrived, The Clash were on), not too dark, not too bright, and cozy-looking. We took a table for two, with her sitting on the banquette and me sitting opposite her on a chair. She insisted that I put the accordion on the banquette beside her. She started to pet and stroke it. I was looking forward to my turn.
“It’s so pretty!” she said, running her fingers over the keys and buttons.
We ordered a bottle of wine, a croque madame, onion soup and frites. The wine arrived first, and she downed her first two glasses pretty quickly. Lindsey asked if I could play another number on the accordion, and after checking with the waitress, I played Nine Inch Nails’ Head Like a Hole. The kids a couple of tables over from us shot video of the whole thing on their phones, and gave me some generous applause when I was done. The loudest cheering came from Lindsey.
I put my accordion back beside her and when I sat down, I placed my hand on the table. She placed her hand on mine.
This was going well.
We continued talking as a guy pulled a laptop out of a bag, ordered a coffee and started tapping away. Under slightly different circumstances, that might’ve been my evening, I thought.
“This evening has been so. Much. Fun,” Lindsey said, leaning up close. I’m having a great time.”
“So am I,” I said. For a first date — er, non-date — after getting separated, this was a pretty good start. There’s also something special about doing this while travelling.
If I had any worries, it wasn’t about how things were progressing, but about how much wine Lindsey was putting away. She was getting a little wobbly.
“So much fun, that we should spread it around!” she declared.
She turned to her right and looked at the guy at the table beside us, who was working away on his laptop.
“You…” she said, “should join us!” She pulled his table right up to ours, nearly knocking his laptop off in the process. “Come! Have some fun!”
He closed his laptop and slid himself on the banquette to Lindsey’s side. “I’m Dave,” he said, shaking both our hands.
Things had been going so well so far, so I figured that I could handle this little interruption. After all, this hadn’t started out as a date, and simply saying “No, Lindsey, you are not turning this into a party of three” would probably just making things worse. Besides, she and I had been connecting all night. This was just some random guy who I could hustle away after a couple of minutes.
Dave joined in our conversation easily, and Lindsey had more wine. The last two glasses brought her past the tipping point, and her wobbliness increased. She was also getting more boozy touchy-feely, and since she and Dave were sitting side by side on the banquette, Dave was getting all that action. I started formulating ways to get rid of Dave. I did not survive getting dumped and near-death in a hospital to get outplayed by some random chump.
I was starting on some suggestions to leave and go somewhere else when the topic of birthdays came up. “Mine’s June 6th,” said Lindsey.
“So is mine!” said Dave, with an amazed look that I was sure was fake.
“Bullshit,” I retorted.
He produced a driver’s licence. The date of birth read June 6. The discovery of this coincidence only endeared Dave to Lindsey even more, at which point she gave him a big hug and he slid right up beside her.
This is not happening, I thought. This. Is. Not. Happening.
It might have been the booze, or the surprising turn of events, or perhaps the fact that it had been seven or eight years since I’d last gone on a date, but I had lost control of the situation. What followed was a bit of a blur; I remember still being part of the conversation, but I’d been turned into the fifth wheel. They were holding hands, Lindsey was wobbling more and more, and getting louder by the minute. Having lost my appetite, I left my croque madame half-eaten.
I began to contemplate just making an exit and leave with at least a little pride intact when the waitress came up to our table.
“We’re closing soon,” she said to all of us. Then she turned to Lindsey and said, “ma’am, we’re going to have to take away your wine. You’ve had more than enough.”
She took the bottle and said “Sorry…state law.” She took Lindsey’s glass and offered to package the remaining wine for me.
“No,” I said, still wondering if there was a way to get rid of Dave, even though I knew that I’d already blown it beyond recovery. “That’s all right”. I made a mental note to never let this happen again.
“Oh…and sir?” continued the waitress. “We’re having a little trouble with your credit card. Could you come over to the cash register with me?”
“Um, okay,” I replied. This couldn’t be, I thought. I was nowhere near the limit — in fact, my balance should’ve been close to zero.
The perfect end to the perfect evening, I thought.
When we arrived at the register, the waitress took a quick look at our table, checking to see that the other two were occupied and out of earshot.
“Sorry,” she said in a low, nearly stage-whisper voice. “I just wanted to get you away for a moment. I’ve been waiting tables for seven years since junior high, and in all that time, I’ve never seen a date do a complete one-eighty like that.”
Taken by surprise, it took me moment to respond. “Well, it didn’t start as a date, so if it doesn’t end like one, no loss, right?”
“Well, you seem like a decent guy, you play a mean accordion, and you’ll make a nice catch for some lucky girl. You know what? I’m going to comp you on the frites.“
Stunned by this kind gesture — consolation fries — all I could say was “Uh, that’s really sweet. Wow. Thank you.”
Although I paid with my credit card, I left her a twenty-dollar bill in addition to a generous tip. This was the nicest, sweetest and most memorable thing that I can recall a server at a restaurant doing for me. If there was only going to be just one thing remaining to go right this evening, let it be this, I thought.
We all stepped outside.
“Need a lift, bro?” Dave offered as we approached his jeep. Before I could refuse, Lindsey took my hand and motioned for me to take “shotgun”. She hopped into the back and popped her head between the driver and front passenger seat, anchoring herself by putting her left arm around Dave. Dave turned on his stereo, which started playing some terrible Jack Johnson tune, heaping insult upon injury.
It was a mercifully short ride back to my hotel. With Jack Johnson providing an appropriately saccharine ironic soundtrack to the proceedings, Lindsey squeezed herself into the spot between the two front seats to give me a hug and peck on both cheeks. As I stepped out of the Jeep, she clambered into the front passenger seat and closed the door.
“Hey, Joey,” said Lindsey, sticking her head out the window. “I had a great time! Let’s do this again!”
I watched as Dave’s rear lights — along with Lindsey — vanished downhill into the San Francisco night.
I stayed in San Francisco for a couple more days and flew home Sunday morning.
Just after noon, on Monday, a little red indicator appeared above the “Friends” icon on Facebook. It was Lindsey, requesting to be my friend.
Ah, what the hell, it’ll be amusing, I thought and clicked “Accept”.
Moments later, a message from Lindsey in my Facebook inbox:
It’s always fun when you join us out on the town! Let me know when you come to SFO again!
By the way: the guy who drove us home, what was his name?
I wasn’t in front of a mirror at the time, by I suspect my response looked something like this: