Some stories are funny when they happen. Some stories require distance before the underlying humor can be obvious. And then there are stories that are too dark to ever really be funny.
I’m not sure if this next story falls into the second or the third category, but I’m going to tell it here and hope it’s the second.
[Disclaimer: I’m not trying to make light of suicide. This is a true story as I remember it.]
The Worst Date… Ever
Back when I was living in Costa Mesa, California (in Orange County), I worked as a music section manager at one of the major bookstore chains. It took me a couple months and an awkward appearance at a co-manager’s birthday party (which I was sort of, kinda, indirectly invited to, but not really), but I eventually found my footing among my coworkers.
Feeling a bit more comfortable at my job, I decided to pursue a girl who also worked at the store. A mistake, I know.
After I left Charlotte for Philadelphia, I had committed myself to not getting involved in a relationship again. I had left a great girl in Charlotte (also a coworker) and I knew with my 10 Cities plan that it was just too painful and unfair to go through that again. It was a wise decision. Just not an easy one to stick to.
By the time I had moved from Philly to Costa Mesa, I was ready to abandon my self-imposed isolation.
This girl, let’s call her Susan, was a new hire, younger than me (they almost always are) and vaguely punk, in that way teenagers and early twentysomethings always come off when they try to be ‘counterculture’. Maybe it was being surrounded by Orange County plastic chicks or just vestigial attraction to punk rock grrls from my teenage days, but I found her a tantalizing focus for my advances. Susan wasn’t exactly my type (physically or in personality), but she was cute and I was tired of going it alone.
We flirted regularly and I gave her my number at one point, but she was a lazy worker and eventually she quit (or was fired, not really sure). That likely would have been the end of it and I figured I’d never see her again, except that her mother worked in a nearby office building and Susan took a job as her mother’s assistant. When her mother came across the way to get coffee in the bookstore, Susan came along, too, and we would chat. I had the distinct feeling that her mother liked me, or at least approved of me. (I do tend to do better with mothers than fathers.)
So after a few months of seeing her maybe once a week, I asked Susan out to a concert. She said yes.
Now, for some guys, this would have been as natural as sweating, but this was monumental for me. After more than a year of avoiding anything romantic, I was jumping back into a game that I had never been all that good at in the first place (I always feel like I stumble into relationships more than intentionally pursue them). And the fact that the concert was Ryan Adams, my favorite singer/songwriter, heightened the magnitude of the whole affair.
As far as dates go, it wasn’t all that inventive. We had to drive into L.A. (my roommate was letting me borrow her car) and that would take considerable time with the famously horrendous traffic, so there was no dinner, no pre- or post-concert plans, just the show. Susan had never even heard Ryan Adams before, but she knew her brother was a big fan so she was excited. I made her a mix of his best songs, which, naturally, I took hours to sequence and she probably never listened to. Ryan is alt-Country and she liked ‘punk’ bands, so it wasn’t a perfect fit, but she seemed genuinely enthused for the show, so I didn’t figure it to be an issue.
The night before the concert, my phone rang and the caller ID warned: Susan. Here it came. She was going to back out, I knew it. “Sorry, I can’t make it, I forgot I agreed to babysit,” or some other excuse. Bite the bullet.
“Hi, it’s Susan,” her voice came to me, quivering. Something was wrong.
“Hey, what’s up?” I was prepared for any level of cop-out, but not for what she said next.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know how to… My brother is dead. He killed himself.”
Ladies, if you want to get out of a date, a brother’s suicide definitely trumps anything.
Having dealt with suicide in my life, I attempted to console her and told her to not worry about the concert, I understood that she wouldn’t want to go.
“No,” she countered, “I still want to go.”
Uh? “Are you sure?”
“My brother loved Ryan Adams. I want to see him.”
This date had just turned into a tribute to her suddenly-deceased brother. I couldn’t very well say no. What choice did I have? I agreed to pick her up the next day, as planned.
I was supposed to pick her up at her house, but about an hour before we were set to meet up, she called to tell me she was at a tattoo parlor.
“I’m going to get something for my brother.” She was sitting at the parlor with her friends, not sure if she was going to get a tattoo or a piercing. But she added, “I really feel like drinking tonight.” An understandable reaction, though she wasn’t 21 yet. For the record, I had no qualms helping an underaged girl get fucked up in memory of her dead brother. Sometimes, drinking is the answer.
I arrived at the parlor with a fifth of tequila in the backseat. No shot glasses, no limes, no salt. Just tequila, like our Forefathers drank it. She was still waiting to get her piercing when I arrived. Her friends were sitting with her when I walked in, and that’s when it occurred to me that Susan was getting passed off to me. Her friends had been hanging out with her, keeping their eyes on her, and now I was going to be taking her off their hands and she would be my responsibility.
Freshly pierced, Susan parted ways with her friends and left with me, but not for the concert. First, we had to stop by her house. This meant meeting her father.
I don’t recall her reason for going home, but I think it was mainly for the purpose of checking in with her parents who were reasonably concerned about her and about her going out with some random guy. Standing in the kitchen with Susan’s father while he watched TV, I tried my best to exude an aura of, “I am not trying to take advantage of your daughter in your time of grief.” I don’t care how cool you are, that is not an easy vibe to give off.
We finally left for the concert and managed to have a not-entirely uncomfortable conversation on the drive up, mostly about what she wanted to do with her life and what female comedians she liked. Don’t ask me, those are just the topics that took shape.
Before going into the concert, we each did five shots straight from the bottle of tequila. As a mind eraser, I’ve always found Mexican Lemonade to be quite effective, and so we made our way into the venue sufficiently buzzing.
How was the concert, you might be wondering. That’s sort of crass of you, but okay, I’ll tell you. Ryan Adams and the Cardinals gave a great performance that night. I got to hear them play “Come Pick Me Up” which Ryan hadn’t played the first time I saw him live, plus nearly 30 other songs. Ignoring the circumstances, it might have been one of the best concerts of my life.
But the circumstances could not be ignored. Throughout the show, Susan was receiving text messages from friends and family all sending their condolences as the news of her brother’s suicide was spreading. The guy to my right grew pissy and kept whispering curtly for her to shut her phone because the light was bothering him. I tried to apologize and explain it was important, but I didn’t very well want to say, “Cool it man, her brother just died.” It just didn’t seem like the best thing to blurt out.
Halfway through the show, there was an intermission and Susan and I went back to the car for another round of shots. By the time we sauntered back in for the second half of the show, well more than half the bottle had been extinguished. We both beelined for the restrooms and then met back in our seats. After sitting through maybe two songs of the second half of the concert, Susan told me she was going back to the bathroom.
After five songs of absence, I texted her to see if she was okay. She said she was fine. I texted her again after another few songs. She still said she was fine, just in the bathroom. The concert ended and Susan had never returned.
As the crowd was clearing out of the concert hall, I bolted to the bathrooms. I spotted Susan being accompanied out of the bathroom by a girl who told me she had been bawling in the bathroom. A small crowd had gathered and one guy, giving me the stink eye, asked Susan what I had done to her. I quickly interjected to explain that Susan wasn’t crying because of me, her brother had just died (I left out the details) and thankfully Susan was coherent enough to affirm it.
From there, I helped her to the car and drove her home. I don’t recall if we spoke much on the drive home, but I would guess a heavy silence filled the majority of our conversation.
I dropped her off, no goodnight kiss (and no attempt for one), and watched her ascend up into the shelter of her home.
After that night, I saw her sporadically over my last seven months spent in Costa Mesa, mostly with her mother. There was no second date and while I didn’t exactly avoid Susan, I didn’t attempt to call her either. Whether that was the right thing to do or not, I don’t know, but she needed to surround herself with people who knew and loved her, not some random guy who thought she was kinda cute.
I eventually started dating someone else (another coworker; I know, it’s a sickness) and moved to San Francisco for my 4th city. I had no reason to think I’d ever see Susan again, so you can imagine how surprised I was to run into her on my third night in SF at a small coffee shop where my drunk, Australian roommate was miserably performing stand-up comedy (a story for another post).
I ended up spending the night hanging out with Susan and a couple of her roommates. She had also recently moved to the city. Talking with her and her friends, it was obvious how little we had in common, but it was good to see her enjoying herself. Susan told her friends about me and they immediately took to me, telling me how ‘cool’ I was. They talked about us hanging out and Susan once again took my number so that she could call me up on another night.
When I left her that night, Susan gave me a long, firm hug, as did her friends.
I never did hear from her again.