We asked readers to submit their least romantic stories for our Valentine’s Day issue. To read the other tales of woe and regret, see the rest of our (almost) romance-free ode to Valentine’s Day.
In the fall of 2011, for reasons I will not expand on here (except maybe to say I needed to find out what I didn’t want), I, a lifelong Chicagoan, moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan. And though it lies a mere 200 miles northeast, the same Great Lake lapping at its shores, western Michigan might as well have been another country, for all it had in common with anything I had ever known.
And so it was no great surprise when the cultural differences made themselves apparent some two months after I had gotten settled in, when my friends in Grand Rapids began to continually bring up the fact that I had yet to acquire a boyfriend since I had moved there. It was as though they couldn’t quite grasp how I could stand to stay single for months at a time, much less accept that I didn’t mind it. I came up with excuses: I had barely gotten settled from the move. I was looking for work. I was going to school. I was busy. In reality, I was pondering a polite way to say the men in this town did not come close to meeting my standards in any way.
I softened this explanation, finally, by pointing out that there was nowhere to meet the kind of men I was interested in. The college crowd of frat boys and obsessive academics wasn’t for me. I was only 19, so I couldn’t go to any of the bars or either of the small music venues. And beyond that, there was nothing to do in Grand Rapids. No place to meet people—or at least, not the skinny-jeans-wearing, vinyl-collecting, art-scene hipsters I was used to.
It was this lament/explanation that made my friend Janice decide that a blind date was the answer. Janice was convinced that she had found the guy for me. Don was his name, and he worked with Janice at a local health food/vitamin shop.
“Come on, Don is really stylish and good looking. He loves underground music, and he’s really into art. Besides, I already gave him your number,” Janice insisted. “You know, a hipster. Exactly your type. ”
I had my doubts.
But ultimately I said yes, and insisted Janice come by and examine my closet for something suitable to wear, since I knew otherwise I’d show up in all black and stilettos, which I didn’t think would work in my favor in Michigan. She chose a black boat-neck shirt, black lace-up ballet shoes, and a long, pale-blue, watermarked silk skirt with satin ribbons hanging from the bottom. Pretty, but a little more French-garden-in-the-rain than I would ordinarily ever wear to a casual first date.
Still, it was in that outfit a week later that I showed up at a slightly ostentatious and vaguely southwestern-themed breakfast cafe for my blind date with Don. I had arrived first, about five minutes early, and took a seat in the waiting area. About ten minutes later, a twentysomething guy with side-parted hair and a leather jacket walked in. I looked him over. Nice eyes. Nice smile. Nice watch. Nice . . . wedding ring. Not Don.
Another ten minutes or so passed before another guy around my age walked in. Tall. Clean-cut and neatly pressed. Not exactly what I’d call hip, but not half bad considering. I watched him walk up to the hostess stand and say he was waiting for someone. This must be him, I thought, and as he took a seat opposite mine, I leaned forward and said, “Are you Don?”
“Oh, no, I’m sorry, I’m not,” he said, before reaching into his jacket and pulling out a Bible, which he proceeded to read intently, occasionally mouthing the words as he read.
Not Don. Thankfully.
As 15 more minutes passed I began to get restless. I took to watching the door: yuppie couple with giant stroller, little old red-hat women, Bible-reading-Not-Don’s date, elderly gentleman who runs the bookshop next door to the cafe, grungy guy in a trucker hat. Grungy guy in a trucker hat who was staring at me.
“Oh god no,” I thought to myself. “Please be another Not-Don.”
“You must be Bianca,” Very-Clearly-Don said.
We got a table, and Don, with his long, unkempt hair sticking out from under a red knit skullcap sticking out from under a studded and cross-sporting trucker hat (both of which he elected to keep on), torn flannel shirt, earrings, tattoos, and longish beard, looked at me the way you look at an animal you’ve read about and seen pictures of but have never actually encountered in real life before.
“So,” said Don.
“So,” I said, “you work with Janice, huh? Into the whole health food bit?”
“No, not really, I guess,” said Don.
” … ”
” … ”
“So,” I started up again, “Jan tells me you’re into really underground music. What do you listen to?”
“Rap. You know, like T-Pain,” Don says, as I choke down a laugh, “and, like, punk. A lot of punk.”
This got me enthusiastic, and I said, “Really? Like who are you into? I’m a Clash kind of girl myself.”
Don just looked at me.
“So, what? Like the Ramones? Or, well, everyone likes the Sex Pistols, at least the idea of them, right?” I said, to a similar response. I tried one last-ditch effort with, “Well, maybe more of a Velvet Underground thing?”
“No … just, like, stuff guys play in the houses around where I live. I don’t really know the names of the bands or whatever,” said Don.
” … ”
” … ”
” … ”
“So … what music do you listen to?” Don asked.
“Well, indie standards, I guess. Death Cab. The Shins. And I like avant-garde music, like Andrew Bird or St. Vincent or Straylight Run.”
“Anything … else?” Don queried, looking a little suspicious.
I don’t know what I looked like, nor do I want to.
“Well, protest-folk like Dylan or Leonard Cohen. And small-band 1920s hot jazz.”
This lattermost admission was rewarded with a look of plaintive disgust.
“So you like art, Janice tells me.”
I realized I was just jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire even as I said it.
“Well, yeah … I paint longboards,” Don said.
I perked up once again. Not my thing, but still pretty cool, in a Juxtapoz kind of way.
“Really? What kind of stuff do you do?” I asked.
“Well, you know, I paint them colors I mix. Or, like, some have stripes. I’m halfway through trying to paint one like an octopus, but I doubt I’ll ever finish it.”
“Why not?” I inquired, sincerely, just relieved that a conversation was picking up. “An octopus longboard sounds kind of cool.”
“‘Cause the octopus sucks,” he answered.
I paused for a moment to consider appropriate responses. There’s the old aw-shucks-I’m-sure-your-octopus-isn’t-that-bad or a general oh-huh-how-about-that and before I could decide, Don broke back in with, “So do you do some kind of art?”
“Yeah,” I said, “mostly mixed-media broadsides and small-scale installations.”
“So wait,” Don said, “you just install art?”
At which point I looked at the wall clock and explained that I had to get going, had an appointment, etc. Paid for my coffee, said goodbye, and left.
A few days later I had more or less forgotten about the whole thing, when my phone vibrated with a text message. From Don.
“Hey u. Want 2 go out again soon?” it read.
I was baffled. I said, “No thanks.”
And, to my complete incredulity, got back a message that said, “Why not?”
To which I responded with what may be the most cruel—though certainly the most straightforward and honest—words I’ve ever said to another person:
“I would rather be alone than be with you.”