March 4, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

L.A. Affairs: What the guy at the deli counter taught me about love

My ex was a fellow L.A. native I’d met on a dating app. We were surprised we hadn’t met IRL because our circles were intertwined; we went to rival high schools, and his cousin had been in a singing group with my sister and me, often performing at the Sherman Oaks Galleria back when it looked like it did in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

We’d been dating for a year when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to deal with additional risks due to my BRCA1 gene mutation. He was right by my side, spending countless hours with Cedars-Sinai doctors and with me in the medical center and treatment rooms . Once I came out all clear, he proposed. Our wedding was set at the Sportsmen’s Lodge Hotel in Studio City, not far from where he grew up and where my mom was having lunch when she went into labor with me. I thought our past had come perfectly, romantically full circle. At 40, I had waited a long time for the right man, and I thought I’d found him. Then, we realized we had some fundamental differences about how we wanted to live our lives. We called off the wedding. That was two and a half years ago.

I left that relationship a different person than I entered it, not only with more self-awareness but also with the emotional and physical scars and changes that going through cancer brings. I found my single self face to face with two fears: the fear of sharing my new body with a new man and the fear that I might never find a man, or love, again. I stopped allowing myself to believe, or even hope, that I would. I had lost a lot in such a short period of time that I was scared to take that chance. So, I vowed I wouldn’t get back out in the dating world until I had worked through my fears and would take as much time as I needed to heal before attempting a new relationship.

In March, I started to feel ready and did not let COVID-19 deter me as long as safety protocols were followed. Unfortunately, I found an overabundance of shockingly bad behavior by men on dating apps, offering proof to back up my hypothesis that there was no one out there for me. But I kept on and went on “socially distanced” dates with a few men. One, especially, I enjoyed spending time with and was curious to see where it might lead — all the while with that lingering fear.

Since he had planned our first few dates, I suggested a picnic on the Santa Monica bluffs and offered to pick up sandwiches at Whole Foods. Behind the counter, the millennial guy with kind eyes asked me what I’d like to order. I looked at my phone to double-check my date’s request. When I announced a turkey on wheat with no spread, he asked, feigning an affront, “Who eats a turkey sandwich dry!?” “My date, I guess,” I laughed. “Ooh, a date!” he teased. “Wait. How are you dating in a pandemic?”

I explained how pandemic dating usually begins with a video call and then potentially progresses to a walk or other outdoor activity with plenty of space for social distancing. Before the in-person meeting, though, there is the “mask talk,” where both sides discuss expectations for wearing masks. Assuming both parties are on the same page, the date proceeds.

“Ugh, the mask talk! Like we need more dating hurdles to get through!” he said. I laughed and agreed but told him I liked that COVID-19 protocols are forcing people to take the time to get to know one another before meeting or getting physical. ”I’ll give you that,” he answered, “but I still don’t know about this ‘no spread’ guy. I’m skeptical of people who eat their turkey sandwiches dry. Pretty basic.”

I’m not sure if he meant “basic” in the slang way, but I took the word at face value and told him that basic was exactly what I’m looking for; basic, as in simple, as in not complicated. If relationships were like spreads, too often I’d gone for the fancy spicy mustard with roasted pesto jalapeño types that look and smell exciting and enticing and seem like they will be amazing forever but just end in disappointment.

“Nope. No more of those types of relationships for me,” I declared. “I want straightforward, simple spread.”

We chatted a little more on the subject until he asked if I had ever been married. I told him I had been engaged a few years earlier, and when he asked if I’d been in a relationship since then, I told him the truth: I had dated casually but needed to take the time to heal my heart and body, because I had gone through a lot over the past few years.

“It sounds like it’s been a hard time for you. I’m sorry,” he said, his voice soft, his eyes looking at me compassionately.

“It’s been a hard time for everyone,” I responded.

“True,” he said, “But I really hope you find love again, if that’s what you want. You can have it, you know. You deserve happiness.”

Tears welled up in my eyes and streamed down my cheeks, dampening my mask. (I played it off as allergies to the deli guy.)

I felt like I was in a movie; one of those moments when you know your life is changing, and so your surroundings sort of fade away. Although I was standing in the middle of a supermarket, in that moment, the fear shifted, and I felt hope start to come back. It was like all the healing work I’d done needed one final thing to make it stick, and it came in the form of the words of a masked millennial with whom I’d had a 10-minute encounter. (Luckily, it was a slow day, so no one was waiting in line behind me.)

I don’t know if such a moment could have happened pre-COVID and pre-masks. Maybe there’s something about not being fully seen that makes us feel safer allowing ourselves to be fully seen.

It didn’t end up being a romantic match with the “no spread” guy. And I knew the sandwich guy was just being kind, not hitting on me.

But instead of choosing to view it as proof there was no hope for me to find love again, I chose to see it as proof that I could, that it’s possible, and even better, that I am now ready and open for it.

All thanks to a Whole Foods sandwich.

The author is a writer and performer, whose one-person show, Deconstructing Holly, explores how breast cancer helped her deconstruct what it means to be, and become, a woman. She is on Instagram @hollyjsidell.

L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the L.A. area, and we want to hear your true story. We pay $300 for a published essay. Email LAAffairs@latimes.com. You can find submission guidelines here.