A Personal Essay
By Katie Love
(c) Copyright 2021
As a comedian, dating mishaps are comedy gold, especially dating in L.A. There’s a kind of bartering that takes place between my romantic fantasies and the belly laughter that follows a punchline featuring my dating blunders. It’s a win-win-lose.
So when I sat down inside the deli with a fellow comedian for a simple joke-writing session, but instead, burst into tears, I was completely caught off guard.
Who was this woman who had written and recited countless relationship jokes over the past twenty years, now crying into her omelet and muttering something about shame?
I met him through a dating app. The photo that caught my attention was of him standing in a river, fishing, donned in goofy, overstated fishing gear and a smile as wide as that river. I clicked ‘like,’ he said hello, and a few days later we were at Taco Tuesday together. After dinner, we were making out in my car like a couple of teenagers. The following week and for several months thereafter, we met once or twice a week for fun-loving sex and takeout meals; the traces of marinara or soy sauce lingering on our tongues instead of conversation.
I took great comfort in his quiet demeanor; a sublime juxtaposition to my comedic chatter. Our silence was a haven, a break in the wall of my variety show repertoire that had kept me safe through a lifetime of unrequited love and unfulfilled expectations. Our silence was a place where we could rely on our physical connection without all those awkward discovery questions; a satellite office for romance where everything was a miniature version of itself – smaller, more manageable. With so little of our life stories in play, every touch, every kiss felt like a delicious first. We were careful not to indulge the slightest curiosity as to who we were as individuals; making our union feel mysterious and vogue in its vagueness.
Sometimes after our rendezvous, he would offer to take the recyclables out for me, complaining that the garbage bags were too thin and that I should invest in something more substantial. Never mind an emotional investment, but certainly, I should seek out reinforced garbage bags.
It was the only domesticated moment we shared, this glimpse into the mundane.
We would kiss goodbye at the door as his hip bore the weight of the recyclables, the bottles, and cans clanking in protest to any semblance of sentimentality.
Our simplicity ended abruptly one evening as one disjointed comment led to another and suddenly we were in a full-blown political debate. His conservative views were so out of alignment with mine, I could scarcely fathom how we’d been attracted to each other at all. The fact that we were naked during our first argument, or rather, conversation, didn’t make things any less awkward.
“This is ridiculous!” I said, hoping to end our impromptu debate and settle back into our post-coitus silence. “Whatever you do, make sure to vote.”
“I can’t vote,” he said as he turned away from me. “You know that.”
“What do you mean, you can’t vote?!” I snapped.
“I told you – I’m a convicted felon! I’m not allowed to vote.”
An awkward, dead silence filled the room until I managed, “I’m sorry, what?”
I began to reassemble our word groupings that had taken place over the last three months, as I certainly couldn’t call them conversations. I tried to recall that first night at Taco Tuesday, but honestly, I remembered more about the salsa bar than our shared dialogue.
I might have been caught up in the mutual groping, but I was confident that the whole “Hey, just so you know, I’m a felon” disclosure had never occurred.
“No, you never told me that. That must have been some other Internet stranger,” I quipped, grabbing for the sheets, determined to create an impediment between my bare skin and his past.
“I was so sure I told you. Sorry.”
Maybe it was all those true-crime TV shows I had watched over the years, but I had to ask him. I had to know.
“What did you do?” I whispered as if the question might make me an accessory after the fact.
He took a deep breath and sat up on the edge of the bed, his naked profile taut and braced against a sliver of moonlight that crept in through the blinds. “I killed someone,” he said steadily. “I was a stupid kid…a really bad kid. I made a mistake that ruined so many lives and I’ve been paying for it ever since.”
I tensed in fear, yet I couldn’t reconcile his gentle touch with this confession. I wanted him to stay and share his story, all of it, from birth until that fateful moment, and – I wanted him to make haste.
Waves of regret washed over me and over the bed that was still warm with his scent, flooding the apartment, pulling me under.
How had I attracted this person? Is this who I am – someone who sleeps with murderers? What did I miss in his profile?! Where was my intuition hiding? Am I really this clueless?
Get out, get out, GET OUT! I screamed in silence as he got dressed.
“How long were you in for?”
Twenty-four years? I was afraid to ask for more details.
Now fully dressed, he stood in the doorway of my bedroom. I wrapped the sheet around me and walked him to the front door. Where once there was a kiss and a gentle clanking of bottles, now there was grief and deafening respect for the dead and endings like ours.
After he left, I took to the couch where I wrapped the sheet around me like a cocoon and picked up my phone. I typed his name into the search bar with the word “conviction” and learned about a life that was snuffed out by a single bullet. He and his companion had only meant to intimidate the victim, their testimony read.
I imagined him in his cell, aging, time passing, relentless; the lines in his face deepening and the light in his eyes dimming with each parole denial.
As well it should dim, I thought. No, wait. He had remorse. He had served his time. He had made amends through the system. Right? I didn’t know. The more I tried to articulate my feelings, the more my mind filled with imagery. I pictured the family of the slain victim, gathering around on the day of the shooting, holding on to each other, and holding on to the hope that maybe one day they could make sense of this terrible thing, this life interrupted and perhaps find forgiveness. Or not. I imagined him getting on a bus the day of his release, disoriented, knowing no one, no longer a hopeful college student, but a man, broken, calloused, regretful, unsure of the next turn, white-knuckling the steadying pole as the bus rounded another corner to his new-old life. The harsh angles of the prison yard fading in the distance, too foreign against a sweet summer sky. I saw him looking out the window at terrain he hadn’t seen in twenty-four years.
How the landscape must have changed, how houses must have sprung up, been torn down, and rebuilt. I imagined the spirit of his victim sitting next to him on that bus, looking out the window at an empty, open road, its forks remaining unexplored.
One year later, at the deli, I pushed my omelet around the plate with my fork, circling a rogue mushroom, tears streaming and coffee going cold.
“Sweetie, it’s not like you dated a murderer on purpose,” my comedy colleague offered. “Why all the shame? I mean, it’s not like you put your profile up on E-Felony and now you’ll only date people in orange jumpsuits. Seriously. You saw a photo you liked. You swiped right. You went out for tacos. How is this your fault?”
No – of course it wasn’t my fault, I reasoned, but I hadn’t been able to define that while caught up in the concept of “we are who we attract.” Had I heard that in a life coach sermon or read it in a romance guide? I couldn’t remember, but I knew I would need to unhinge that sidecar of shame to move forward. I had also experienced a seismic shake-up of my romantic identity. The bawdy comedienne with a surplus of dating stories and supposed prowess had just discovered that her heart was not as casual as she had once believed.
“Wait,” I said, brushing a tear from my cheek. “Did you just say E-Felony? That’s funny!”