Erica and I are waiting for coffees in front of All Time’s sidewalk service counter, Jack in his stroller between us. We admire the dogs passing by on Hillhurst Avenue, comparing them to Cassius and Trudy, the pair in our backyard. We compare Jack’s stroller with other strollers, discussing pros and cons. Coffee in hand, we consider continuing on to the bookstore. We talk about my new favorite Showtime thriller, “Yellowjackets,” and she lets me spoil the ending because she likes the twists but not being scared.
You can find us roaming the streets of Los Feliz in the midmorning while I take a break from writing and caffeinate before my afternoon tutoring gigs. Were it not for the way I stand no closer than three feet from Erica, we might look like a portrait of Eastside millennial domesticity.
And that’s the problem.
There is a cute barista at the coffee counter, and I would like to take her on a date. I worry that she thinks I am Jack’s father. I would like her to know that I am Jack’s father’s friend, who was figuring things out when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and now lives in the guest house while he finishes grad school.
So I enforce a barrier of personal space on this block of Hillhurst and risk looking like the kind of dad who ignores his baby’s mother to make it at least somewhat clear that I am a viable participant in L.A.’s sexual marketplace.
John — one of my oldest friends — is married to Erica, and they are building a wonderful life with their son in Los Feliz, and I pitch in. I am living in my gilded age: long strolls up and down Hillhurst and Vermont, oat milk in my coffee. I work on my novel. I make tacos with farmer’s market jalapeños and flank steak from McCall’s. I browse Skylight Books with classmates, and we turn our professor’s titles face out. I cook dinner for my dearest friends and witness their beautiful baby discovering that he exists in a whole wide world.
This is Los Angeles, where the air has always been dangerous, especially so now, but I am healthy and privileged to devote hours of my day to writing. Everything I could want — local butcher, local pho, local bookstore, local cinema — within a 20-minute walk.
Over a period of weeks, we develop rapport with the cute barista — she knows our names and orders. And now she knows that I am just Erica’s friend. I shifted from jerky dad category to the rarer “lives-with-his-married-friends” category, which is super charming in a multicamera sitcom, but I’m not sure how well I pull it off. Besides, it makes me feel gross to flirt with someone while embedded in a capitalist superstructure that requires her to be pleasant to my face, no matter her internal experience of my company.
Thrice jabbed, 33 and single, with a schedule determined in large part by a housemate who is 8 months old. How did my gilded age end up shaped like this? My romantic life shifted abruptly, irrevocably and dismally a few months before pandemic closures began. I entered my 30s in a partnership I thought would last a lifetime, but it ended by the time I was 31. In March 2020, I was two months from finally finishing college and waiting to hear back from graduate programs. The world was going on pause right when I had finally put myself in a position to go fast.
But my friendship with John is nearly two decades deep and we’ve shown up for each other in hard times before. And my friendship with Erica is part of what brought the two of them close enough to discover their chemistry. When they began dating, I was the first person to recognize, even before they did, that they were in love. When the world began to fall apart two years ago and I was already reeling from that breakup, they made a place for me.
So I should listen to them when they tell me to put myself out there. It will be worth it, they say, encouraging me to ask for the barista’s number. “Could she go on a date with my novel instead?” I reply, and we all laugh. Then again, it’s shaping up to be quite the charmer, whereas I tend to sweat.
My main excuse stops working anyway when the barista quits to go back to her calling as an activist. Erica finds her on social media and talks me into doing the same. I ask her out. She says yes, but only after mentioning that she’s in an open relationship that has room for occasional dates with other people. I am surprised by my relief at this news, but it also confirms my suspicions that I am nervous about dating at all.
A few weeks ago, we met up for vegan milkshakes. I spent a few minutes at Skylight before she arrived on her bicycle, because never in my entire life have I felt nervous inside a bookstore.
When I asked her if she’d want to meet up again, I made a lame joke about the purpose of heterosexual first dates being for the man to demonstrate that he isn’t actively dangerous to spend time with, “You know, because I’ve proved I’m not a serial killer.”
“Oh, I knew that already,” she said. “You’re friends with a baby.”
Yes, my gilded age is full of wonders, including a baby who joins me on my morning constitutional. But as I start to put myself out there, future first dates likely won’t know my living situation in advance. I will have to be vulnerable about why my life has its current shape — but I should also remember that we’re all living in the same pandemic in which words like “temporary,” “family” and “gratitude” have ever-shifting definitions.
Perhaps I should trust a future date to understand that I will forever be grateful for my time spent living “in community” with John and Erica (and now Jack), the shorthand we’ve adopted for our unconventional arrangement. These are my people, and I make better sense to myself when they are around. For now, that’s home.
The author is at work on an MFA in creative writing at UC Riverside Palm Desert. He is on Twitter @adamszemel
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. You can find past columns here.