Bad Romance

Navigating the fine line between passion and pretense

Ryan and I met in the choppy free-for-all that is the Highland Park pool in St. Paul, a 50-meter, lane-less affair. He was faster than me, with a swimmer’s broad shoulders and beautiful tanned skin. In the soup of adults paddling, shredding, and chopping their way up and down the pool, Ryan floated to the top. Good-looking, smart, kind. After we met a couple of times, he asked me out.

Our first date was the kind of date that some women (probably married women who can’t get their husbands off their butts to take out the trash) dream about. Ryan picked me up in the morning and loaded my bike into his car. Since we’d be doing the 20-mile Cannon Valley Trail round-trip, he’d brought food to fortify us: Greek yogurt with fresh fruit, scones, and French roast coffee. We ate in the car on the way to Red Wing, chatting about our families and the books we’d read lately.

It was a gorgeous late summer day, and the trail was crowded. We stopped for lunch in Cannon Falls, and after having a burger and a beer, turned around and began the 20-mile ride back to Red Wing, where Ryan had made dinner reservations.

In Red Wing, we headed to the YMCA for a swim and a hot tub, and to shower and change. Hot tub, candlelit dinner, bottle of wine, a ride home under the stars—a girl should love being swept off her feet like this, right?

At the end of the night, Ryan walked me to my door. Then he cupped my face in his hands and dived in for the kind of passionate kiss you see in movies, when lovers have been separated by war.

I was stunned. Our day together had been lovely, but passion could not be forced or fabricated. And for whatever reason, I was not feeling that sort of connection with Ryan.

I saw him a couple more times after that, and I think Ryan was disappointed when things didn’t work out. It puzzled me, too. His ideas for our dates were the kind of things you see in the movies: a romantic sharing of a sundae, a picnic, a stroll through a museum or park. But some small part of me couldn’t help but wonder if he was on a date with me, or with the idea of our date.

Which begs the question, I guess: would I have preferred that he invite me over to do the dishes? To move the couch and vacuum for bugs?

These are the things I remember from watching the romance of my formative years. Sure, my parents got dressed up and went out to dinner. But to me they always seemed most happy together when they were engaged in domestic tedium. I remember them up on separate step ladders, at opposite ends of the basement, holding flashlights, and, having removed the ceiling tiles, searching the crawl space for the dead field mouse that was making that awful smell. I remember their laughter echoing up in that space, while my sister and I sat on the nubby orange couch watching Love Boat.

A couple of years after I’d last seen Ryan, I ran into him at Starbucks. I had spent the morning doing yard work, and had not yet combed my hair. Needing a break, I’d decided to run to the drugstore and then grab a coffee.

When Ryan spotted me, I had grass clippings on my shirt and probably in my hair. I had dirt under my fingernails and was wearing a sincerely butchy pair of cargo shorts. My sister and her kids had visited me recently, and they’d been exposed to children who had head lice. So there I was, holding a lice kit, a box of tampons, and a Snickers bar.

I assumed that in that moment, Ryan was probably quite grateful that things hadn’t worked out. You’re welcome! I wanted to say. See?! It was for the best!

“How’ve you been?” he asked, tentatively.

And because I looked truly feral, and couldn’t think how to say I’m sorry, or I don’t understand the mysteries of the heart! I instead blurted out, “I’ve been doing yard work.” He nodded, and walked away.

Shannon Olson, the author of the novels Welcome to My Planet and Children of God Go Bowling, is a regular contributor to “Last Word.”

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