There was a time in my life when I wanted to be in love more than anything, although I wouldn’t have admitted it. My mom died on my 16th birthday, and I hadn’t seen my father since I was 4 — after my parents’ divorce and before he went to prison for drug-related crimes. I thought being in love would heal my grief and make me feel like I wasn’t abandoned because I was unworthy of being loved. I looked for love wherever I thought I could scrape it up, like the chewed gum stuck to the sidewalk I tried when I was a toddler.
When I was working my way through college as a hairstylist, I found a handsome dentist in an advertisement in a gay LA magazine called Frontiers. I was neurotic about my teeth and got them cleaned every two months. Knowing the dentist was gay and cute was enough motivation to schedule my first appointment with him. I told myself I was too young, skinny and undesirable for it to become a meet-cute, but that didn’t stop me from dressing the part of ingénue. (I had been wrong before.)
I wore a fitted, not buttoned-up-too-high navy blue shirt I had recently purchased on Melrose Avenue, along with fitted Diesel jeans, black Frye boots and an innocent smile. I was polite and didn’t talk too much (so not me). When he finished inspecting my mouth, he lifted my back from the chair and said, “I really like your shirt.” score. The shirt was worth the money. “Who’s the designer?” he asked and proceeded to check my tag by looking into my shirt.
“I don’t know.” I was shocked and flattered that he felt comfortable prying beneath my clothing.
“Krush,” he said after finding the label. “I bet a lot of people have a crush on you.” He smiled and stared into my eyes.
Any inappropriateness of him looking down my shirt was justified by the idea of him — who I thought was out of my league — thinking I was crushworthy. I blushed, got out of his chair and quickly scheduled my next cleaning.
“Hey, your next appointment is on my birthday,” he told me after hearing the receptionist announce the date.
My heart beat out of control as I left the office and walked to the parking structure. How could I make his birthday as special as he’d just made me feel? Sweet Lady Jane. I would bring him a triple berry cake. Effortless. Who wouldn’t like a birthday cake from Sweet Lady Jane? The hardest part would be waiting two months for my next appointment. And, of course, I needed another cute shirt.
I lived on campus at USC and decided to go shopping at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. I roamed in and out of every luxury store and landed in Gucci. I found a fitted, almost sheer, long-sleeved tee. It was black, my second favorite color after navy. If it helped me fall in love, it’d be worth every penny — all 40,000 of them. I bought it.
A week before my appointment, I ordered the cake. It was $65. I high-quality disposable plates, napkins and flatware purchased — plain, light turquoise, understated — and a funny card. I had to have a sense of humor about the whole ordeal. Everything had to seem very casual. If my mission failed, only I would know the truth and could then walk away being seen as sweet — not desperate.
I was scared and optimism as I carried that cake to his office. Yes, it was an expensive gamble, but not betting on love would cost me more. I gave the receptionist the cake, supplies and card, then waited for the hygienist to call me.
When my cleaning was finished, the dentist entered. He was all teeth, grinning cheek to cheek. Surely he loved the cake and would soon adore me.
“Hey,” he said. “Thanks for the cake. How’d you know it was my birthday?”
“Oh, you mentioned it the last time I was here,” I said. The fool.
“I love Sweet Lady Jane,” he said. Who doesn’t?
“No problem,” I said. He was being way too cool. Why wasn’t he looking down my shirt? It was Gucci.
“Your teeth look great. See you next time, and thanks again,” he said.
Was that it? Where was my Meg Ryan moment? I figured he was as nervous as I was or needed to remain professional. I told myself he might call after work, and he’d tell me just how much he adored me and ask me out. We’d fall in love. Sweet Lady Jane would bake our wedding cake, and we would retell our meet-cute story until our friends wanted to vomit. The $600 or so I’d spent would have been worth it.
He never called. Friends who were also patients of his told me he had a boyfriend.
Daydreaming of being head-over-heels in love was fun. I got a story to retell and kept going to him until he tried to sell me unneeded dental work for $5,000.
I couldn’t make love happen, especially at $600 a pop, and I wasn’t defective or unlovable. My mom didn’t die because she didn’t love me; she fought illness long and hard, but her body finally gave out. My father had his own problems, and I was better off far from him. I had a lot of love to give and receive; I only needed a healthier way to express it. After many more adventures in love, I started to put as much effort into myself as I did that dentist. I found an unconditional love inside myself, even when I wore white Hanes T-shirts.
I also discovered Sweet Lady Jane’s cherry pie — and found someone to love.
The author is a writer and photographer with an MFA in creative writing and writing for the performing arts from the University of California at Riverside. Find more of his work at treyburnette.com. He’s on Twitter and Instagram: @writer_trey.
LA Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the LA 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.