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We were seated at an outdoor table and ate strictly off our own plates: I shoveled vegetable lo mein into my mouth, he poked at bits of General Tso with his chopsticks. To me, this was nothing more than two friends grabbing a bite to eat.
“So, is anyone else joining us?” I asked. I looked across our table, which had been growing quieter after the food’s arrival. His brown hair was receding like the tide before a tsunami.
“Not that I know of,” he replied. The food was delicious and was exactly what I needed on that hot summer day. Perhaps after this, I would treat myself to some sorbet. But suddenly, I was struck by the instinct I was being watched; sure enough, he was still looking at me, his face resting in his palm, eyes glistening.
Holy shit, I thought. Am I on a date?
I met Howard Abrams through a tight-knit dance community I became part of in 2010. Our group of friends consisted of quirky, dance-enthused individuals who did things like attend Renaissance Fairs and spontaneously partner-waltz in bars, but it was with them that for the first time, I truly felt like I belonged to something.
During the time I’d known him, Howard made his feelings unmistakable. If his intense eye contact wasn’t enough, he actually had one of our mutual friends pass along the message (and gage my interest in Howard as well). I have never shared his sentiment, so over the last four years, I’ve done everything I could to exterminate his feelings. I would burp like a 300 pound man, invent disgusting habits to brag about in front of him, and openly discuss other men I was seeing. But nothing ever worked. And as long as I wanted to keep my cherished group of friends, I would need to learn how to deal with Howard.
Eventually, I had to let him down hard, tell him face to face, “Howard, I don’t want to be anything more than friends with you.” Howard did actually make a solid friend when he wasn't busy being in love with me.
I thought my most recent attempt finally got through to him. A few months had passed and he really seemed to have moved on, his longing looks disappeared and he was starting to see another girl.
Finally, I thought. I can keep my friends without any more stress from Howard.
So when Howard and I agreed to Chinese food, I felt confident it was nothing more than a casual lunch.
The rest of dinner felt ordinary. We spoke of summer plans, shared a few laughs and when the bill came, we paid separately.
“I actually brought my guitar,” Howard said getting up from his seat. “Would you be down to jam?”
Howard and I had played guitar together countless times after dances, our other friends joining in with fiddles and ukuleles or dancing along to the music. But perhaps one of the reasons I'd agreed in that moment was to prove to myself our friendship truly did become platonic, to reassure myself I wasn’t on a date.
We chose a nearby field to sit under the sun, sing and strum some classic tunes, trading off the guitar to one another. But after a few songs, I noticed Howard picking flowers—wild daisies that painted the field. He skipped and hopped like a schoolboy as I continued to play, bending over to pluck them from the earth. I watched him arrange a small bouquet, which he laid at my feet with love-struck eyes.
I am on a date.
I don’t know why I pretended not to see his romantic gestures. Maybe it was to avoid another awkward confrontation. Maybe it was just because I felt so uncomfortable. But either way, I acted like I had an urgent text from my mother and needed to go home immediately. I reluctantly offered to drive him back to his car, only because it was on the other side of town.
I filled the seven minute car ride with nervous chatter and scanning through random songs on the radio. We had just reached his car and as I pulled over, Howard made it worse:
“I had a really great time with you today,” he said. “I don’t think of you the way I think of other girls.”
Oh, sweet Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
“Well I really ought to be going now,” I said sheepishly, completely disregarding him. “I’ll see you later, Howard!” I motioned to the passenger door, but Howard went in for a hug.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
I wish I had told him to leave. I wish I had told him I didn't want a hug or that I never would have agreed to Chinese food if I’d known it was a date. But instead I gave him a fleeting one-armed side hug, which I weaseled my way out of when he was slow to let go.
Howard finally let himself out and approached his ‘98 Toyota Corolla, which was on the other side of the street. When he got to his car, his hand froze mid-air, just before unlocking the door. He suddenly spun around and swiftly strode back toward my car. And in that split second, two thoughts crossed my mind simultaneously:
The first was the image of Howard rushing back to me. It was oddly reminiscent of a romantic-comedy—of that moment when two lovers say their unwanted goodbyes, but then one rushes back and they passionately embrace.
The second thought was to hit the gas.
Fifty meters after flooring it, I looked back in my rearview mirror. I watched Howard lean against the side of his car, dramatically sliding toward the ground, looking tragic and defeated.
Needless to say, Howard wasn’t over me. If I learned anything from the worst date of my life, a date I didn’t even realize I was on until it was too late, it’s that continuing to pursue someone after countless attempts to dissuade them isn’t romantic; it’s disrespectful. Men like Howard are selfish, delusional people cloaked under the guise of hopeless romantics and kind suitors.
Even so, I remain grateful. My accidental date was a turning point for me; It not only helped me shake off naiveté and taught me to trust my gut, but it also helped me learn how to call out men for unwanted attention—to value myself enough to speak up, to speak out, and to speak my truth.