Off the Bench

Getting back into the dating game means taking a big risk.

On the outskirts of an asphalt parking lot next to a Safeway in Alameda, I waited to meet him. I perched on the edge of a cold metal bench that crisp November morning, outside the coffeehouse where we’d agreed to rendezvous. We’d decided to meet during the day at a neutral spot, equidistant from our homes, for no more than an hour. I checked my watch. Our meeting would be in five minutes — unless my wildly pounding heart gave out before then.

Why hadn’t I told Mr. simply to look for the woman wearing the flaming red coat? But I hadn’t, so I found myself anxiously scrutinizing the driver of each car creeping past. I’d considered several different outfits that morning before choosing a white cotton cable-knit turtleneck from Rockridge Rags and my best blue jeans — topped off by the red coat. I hadn’t intended to dress like the flag of the Land of the Free, but that was the net effect.

And anyway, maybe it was sort of appropriate. If there was one thing I was determined to do during this encounter, it was to freely be myself. I would not strive to present some perfect image of someone I wasn’t, just because I thought he might want to see it. I would be me! Let freedom ring! (Well, actually, I’d be a slightly wavier version of me; I’d applied a little curling-iron action to my shoulder-length brown hair before I left home.)

Who was I? I was the owner of both a small Craftsman house in Alameda, and a mutt who had tasted a few human ankles over the years. I was a nervous, middle-aged woman who’d had one first date in the last six years. I was a woman who’d had to accept the painful fact of being unlikely to ever have children, and the experience of wanting to marry a man who hadn’t wanted to marry me. But none of those were things I worried about telling a potential partner.

There was just one subject that weighed on me, leaving me feeling both vulnerable and defiant, and I couldn’t consider going on a date without figuring out how I would handle the conversation about it. I had to come up with a way to reveal that I have multiple sclerosis.

Six months before the bench outside the coffeehouse, I’d ended my long relationship with David, the aging intellectual with the silky, waist-length hair, the brilliant mind, and the paralyzing inability to commit. After five-plus years, he’d finally agreed to move into my cozy little house, and I’d happily started emptying closets and buying shelves for his stuff. When three months had passed with no boxes appearing, though, I learned that I’d misunderstood his plans. He clarified that what he’d meant was that he’d “move in emotionally.”

Oh, my. I’d been willing to empty out my closets for his clothing and his books, but frankly, his emotions really didn’t need all that space.

It was a few weeks after “move in emotionally” before I could finally speak the truth I’d resisted for years. I called him and told him we were done, because we didn’t want the same things, and we were too different. Then I hung up the phone and quietly fell apart.

With time, I could see that David had been right. I’d not seen and accepted him for who he was — a traveling, lovable, 59-year-old, never-married man who was not likely to change his marital status with me. But neither had David embraced who I was — a 44-year-old, never-married woman who wanted to marry an intelligent man with a kind heart and a sharp sense of humor. My problem was that I had so wanted David to be that man; the electricity between us had sparked so brightly it had blinded me to the truth. My sight had taken nearly six years to clear.

It was sometime after “Good-bye, David” but before “” that I fully absorbed a mighty truth: I would rather be without a partner forever than to be that wrong and anguished again. If I were ever again to be with someone, I was going to open my eyes wide and clearly see the person in front of me, not the person I wished was standing there. And I was determined to present myself so that a new partner would see me, knowing exactly who he was getting. I would not hide from truth; nor could I apologize for being myself. And if that wasn’t good enough for someone — well, then, he wasn’t the right person for me.

David had been very supportive when I’d been diagnosed with MS a year earlier, and of course I had never even imagined having to divulge my health status to a new partner. But now that we’d parted and I’d decided to try dating, the idea of telling someone about the MS had come to mean a great deal.

On an online MS message board, I’d read other people’s stories about when they disclosed their diagnosis. I’d never seen anyone advocating a first-date revelation — but that’s how I was leaning. Maybe most men would be uncomfortable hearing something so heavy at a first meeting, but protecting myself mattered more than worrying about how some men might feel. Hiding the truth even for a short time was one dangerous step away from being ashamed, and I refused to do that. Revealing my MS symbolized my resolve not to apologize for what I couldn’t change, consequences be damned!

And, way down deep, it also gave me a way to shield myself. If a man were going to reject me because of my health, I’d rather it happen before he really knew me. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt as much that way.

The night before I was to meet Mr., in between bites of Basmati rice and dal curry at the Emeryville Public Market, I worked out my plan with my friend Alexa. I knew she wouldn’t try to talk me out of my tell-early plan.

I started thinking aloud as we sat in the din of the cavernous warehouse’s busy food court area. “So maybe I’ll just see if it seems like we’re going to plan a second date. And then if we are — I’ll tell him.”

Alexa nodded, her smile encouraging and her brown eyes warm. “So, how will you say it? Do you want to practice?”

“Oh. Um … okay, how’s this to start? ‘I have something to tell you and it’s about my health, but it’s not really bad, but I’d feel better saying it.’” I’d used a lot of words and not said much of anything, but at least I was warming up my clumsy-speech muscles. We constructed a few more practice declarations as we finished our cheap dinners, talking and laughing until we headed across the parking lot to the Emerybay Theater for a showing of “Love Actually.”

Even though I was pretty sure that Mr. wasn’t already in the coffeehouse, I was too jumpy to just sit and wait. So I ducked through the smudged glass door and scanned the noisy crowd for a face resembling the smooth and warm voice I’d come to know the past three weeks over the phone. The tinkling of spoons against coffee cups and the buzz of conversations helped me to feel inconspicuous as my glance darted from face to face. Aha! Believing I’d found him, I tentatively approached a solitary man.

Photo by Flickr user waferboard“John?” I asked with a lot of eyebrow and a little voice.

“No. Guido.”

Wow. Guido? What were the odds of finding a Guido? Deciding it was even more nerve-wracking to be inside, I headed back outside to my bench.

No sooner had my backside touched down than I saw him. Striding toward me, he was long-legged and easy, holding something stick-like out in front of him. He was a lot taller than I’d expected. Granted, the picture I’d seen on line was only an inch and a half high, but still. This guy was tall.

He was also surprisingly, distressingly handsome. If he had looked this good in the photo I’d seen, I never would have clicked on him. As his engaging smile, more-pepper-than-salt hair, and sparkling blue eyes came into sharper focus, I heard a voice within me clearly speaking. It wasn’t the voice of God; it sounded more like that of an insecure high school sophomore. I think she had freckles. The voice said: Crap. This will never work. He’s too good-looking.

I took a deep breath and waved at him. This man in the fuzzy, grayish pull-over with the “Big Dog” emblem on the front was smiling, and extending toward me a cellophane-wrapped, long-stemmed red rose. Within the cellophane, alongside the elegant rose, was tucked a fun-size pack of plain M&M’s. It was the perfect blend of gallantry and light-heartedness. My ready laugh rang out, and I recognized my warm, smooth-voiced phone companion of the past few weeks.

“Hope you haven’t been waiting too long,” he said.

“Nope, just a couple of minutes. I met a guy named Guido, but that didn’t really go anywhere.”

He chuckled. We walked inside, blanketed by the warm aroma of roasted coffee beans, and ordered our drinks — his a tall iced tea, and mine a steaming hot chocolate. I wondered about the odds of my dribbling chocolate onto my white cable sweater. Pretty high if I used the spoon, I figured. I set it down carefully.

“So, have you been to this place before?” I asked him. “How did you know where it was?”

“I like to go to that little ice cream shop over there for breakfast. The waffles are great, and I like that it’s not a chain place.”

Hmm. Good answer, but I didn’t know where to go after that. So I pretended that we were still talking on the phone, as we’d done most days for the past few weeks. I asked Phone-John, “So did you get hold of your grandmother yesterday?”

“Yeah, and when I wished her a happy 101st birthday, she said that the phone had been ringing all night. Hey, you know what? She actually won some money from the Publishers Clearinghouse!”

“Wait — you mean that’s real?!”

We laughed incredulously, and started easily trading stories — of his relatives in remote Trinity County, of my class of third-graders. He talked about his college days, and I confessed to my obsession with baseball.

I noticed that he wasn’t asking me a lot of questions, although he appeared to be listening intently to anything I said. Maybe he thought I was talking too much. I considered dialing it back a bit, but then remembered my resolve not to hide my real self. So rather than hold in topics and hope that he’d ask, I simply said aloud anything that I wanted him to know. It was deliciously freeing not to be expecting him to be what he wasn’t — an investigative reporter, or a talk-show host. And it was wonderfully liberating for me to be exactly who I was. His glass of iced tea was sweating and my hot chocolate was cooling. The hour was zipping by.

I boldly spooned out the chocolate sludge from the bottom of my mug, and he clinked the last ice cubes in his glass. As he glanced around the room, I wondered if he was thinking about leaving since the hour was about up. Then he surprised me.

“So, do you want to walk around outside for awhile?” he asked.

A walk would be in clear violation of our rules. Was he just trying to be polite?

“Well, it’s been about an hour,” I said. “Remember? We didn’t want either of us to feel pressured or stuck.”

“I’m not feeling stuck. Are you?”

I shook my head and smiled. Oh, my gosh. I was really liking Mr.

“I’m really enjoying our talking,” he continued. “I’m okay with us going a little longer, if you are.”

This time I nodded, and we made our way outside.

As we strolled along the paved path that lined a small lagoon, my stomach started spinning, and it wasn’t from the faintly fishy scent that permeated the Alameda air. The longer we spent together, the more likely it was that I’d need to tell John my secret. I would have to clumsily risk rejection before the tiny hope inside of me could begin to take root. We hadn’t yet said those “I’d like to call you” words to each other, but it felt like they might be coming — and that meant revealing the truth.

I warmed up with something easier, talking about my high-strung dog.

“He’s had several episodes of fear-biting,” I said. “I’m leery of him with new people.” Then I realized it sounded like I was planning for the dog and John to meet each other. I also found myself wondering if John had ever heard that some people seem to resemble their pets. He already knew about my hostile cat. He might be thinking that between my nasty feline and my neurotic canine, my own mental health should perhaps be called into question.

He took this new information in stride, though, saying, “Hey, I’m a UPS delivery guy. I know how to do dogs. I throw the ball a few times, and they’re fine.”

Then he started telling me about a time when he’d been bitten on the job, but I could hardly focus on the words. We’d started to circle back toward the parking lot, and I hadn’t yet said what I needed to say. Everything inside me was racing and spinning. It was absurdly early in our knowing each other, but I needed him to know me. So I sucked in a mouthful of courage and just said it:

“I have to tell you that I have multiple sclerosis and I’ve been very lucky because I’ve had few effects so far but it’s a totally unpredictable disease and there’s no guarantee for the future and I’m doing really great but I don’t know if that will always be and just in case we decide to see each other again I needed you to know because I didn’t want to feel ashamed like I was hiding something about myself and I understand if you don’t want to pursue anything. I just needed you to know.” I pulled my red coat a bit more securely around myself.

He paused a moment, his expression thoughtful. “Well,” he said, “the first thing that comes to me is that that’s a pretty big deal for you. How have you dealt with such a huge thing in your life?”

As we made our way back to the parking lot, I told him how I’d wrapped my head around the diagnosis a year earlier. But I don’t really remember the walk back to our cars, because I didn’t walk it. I floated. I knew I’d be glad if we decided to see each other again, because I really liked him. But that almost didn’t matter, because I was already feeling positively triumphant about having taken that flying leap into daring honesty, and healing. The possible bonus of a potential new friendship with a very likable person? Chocolate sprinkles on top.

Back at the cars, John asked if I wanted us to see each other again. I did — oh, I really did — but even more than that, I wanted us to be consciously accepting of the other as we each were. So I insisted that before we answer that question, he take a day or two to think about what I’d told him.

“But I already know what my answer will be,” he protested.

“Yeah, but I still need you to think about it when you’re not in front of me.”

I guess he wanted to sidestep our potential first fight, because after a couple of objections which I would not accept, he sighed, rolled his eyes, and agreed. We said our good-byes, and got into our respective cars. As I watched John drive away, my overriding feeling was one of pride in myself — pride that bordered on amazement. I was happy that I might see John again, but I was in no hurry to get to that second date. In that moment, all I wanted was to sit in the Alameda Safeway parking lot and smile.

Article © 2013 by Sue Granzella