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Breaking Things

Aug 31, 2009

When I was in college I had big dreams of starting my career in a major city. I was living in Atlanta at the time, which -- believe it or not, East Coasters! -- is quite cosmopolitan. I would drink cocktails in the Atlanta Botanical Garden, watch old movies on the lawn at Piedmont Park, attend fashion shows at 1150, and listen to music under the stars at Chastain Park Amphitheater.

So you'd think that now that I have a bank account worth mentioning and live in the nation's capital I'd be doing all kinds of cultural things, thus fulfilling the dreams of my youth. Except sometime after college I became lame and decided watching reruns of "CSI: Miami" was more fulfilling than getting out.

However, my recent change of jobs has given my a new outlook on my life, and I'm now making concerted efforts to get out and make DC my DC.

First on my list: Jazz in the Sculpture Garden. This is a weekly summertime event that invites Washingtonians to lay a blanket in the grass, bring some cheese, crackers, and wine, and listen to jazz musicians play by the fountain at the Sculpture Garden. So a couple of Fridays ago my roomie, Margaret, and I met at the Metro after work and rode it into the city. We arrived late, so there wasn't much space, but we found a little spot under a tree and beside an ant hotel. It was sufficient for some time, and we even made it out without being bitten! But once the jazz was over and people began to clear out, we packed up our blanket and food and found a spot around the fountain to sit. Although the band had left, recorded jazz was still playing, and it was quite rotic (romantic without the man), listening to jazz as the sun set, dangling our feet in the cool water, and taking in the scenery of the grand, historic buildings on the National Mall. And then Margaret proceeded to ruin it.

"I wonder how deep it gets," she said, staring across the fountain, which was a still pool at that point in the evening. "Wanna walk across it and find out?"

I slowly turned my head to look at her. It isn't unusual for Margaret to come up with wildly stupid ideas, and even worse, she bribes me with spa services.

"Margaret," I said, calmly. "We are not walking across the fountain. It's illegal."

"Ohhhhh, come on!" she chimed. "It's not illegal! No one's going to say anything to us."

I blinked.

"Okay, how about this. Let's just walk around the perimeter," she compromised.


She smiled her sweetest smile and shrugged her shoulders. "I'll pay for an entire day of spa services at an Aveda salon!"

Now we both know that neither of us can barely afford an hour of spa services at an Aveda salon, but regardless, this is her offer when she really, really wants me to do something I really, really don't want to do. It's totally a bluffing game, and I often wonder what would happen if I accepted. But there was no way I was giving in this time.

Margaret, of course, was scheming. "Okay listen, we'll just walk over to that lady in the purple," she pointed, and I saw it was about 20 yards away. "Please please please? It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we will remember this for the rest of our lives!"

She wasn't giving up, so I gave in to end the conversation, which was making me very nervous. We started walking, and it was really no big deal, but then someone started clapping...and then someone cheered...and then someone took a picture...and then someone said, "You're gonna get arrested"...and then I was leaping out of the water and sprinting back to our starting point on the dry ground.

A few moments later Margaret made her way back to me. "Wasn't that fun?!" she chirped.

"Thrilling," I said, shooting an evil look her way. "I hope you got that out of your system."

The sun disappeared behind the National History Museum, and a few lamps came on around the park, but the water looked black, reflecting the starless sky. As we swayed to the music, a guy nearby pulled a girl into the water. He led her to the middle, put his arms around her waist, and danced with her. At first she giggled nervously, but quickly she gave in to the romantic (romantic with a man) gesture.

"See?" Margaret nudged me. "Nothing's happening. How cute are they?! I want to dance in the middle too!"

"I'll dance with you," a male voice said. We looked over, and there was a -- er -- bigger guy grinning at Margaret.

Heh heh, that'll teach her! I thought. To my surprise, she engaged him in conversation, declining the dance but suggesting walking across. A few others around us said they'd like to try it, too. Chatter increased around us, and by the time the couple returned from their dance about eight people were getting up to fulfill Margaret's dream. She looked at me expectantly.

"No no no no no no no no no! We're going to get arrested!!!" But it was too late. People were on either side of me, linking their arms with mine and pulling me in. We started the trek across. Again, people began clapping, cheering, taking pictures...except this time it was dark and the flashes, coming at us from every direction, were blinding. Somehow, when we neared the middle, I was able to pick up motion from my right side. I glanced over and saw Margaret -- RUNNING BACK.

I tore free of whoever was holding on to me and ran as fast as I could through the knee-deep water. When I got to the edge I didn't stop. I kept running into the abandoned park until I felt I was a safe distance from whatever Margaret was running from, and I hid behind a tree. Once I caught my breath, I peeked around the tree. The rest of the group was nearing the other side, and there was a line of security officers waiting for them. O. M. GGGGGGGGGGG.

Ten minutes into my stakeout I saw some from our group wandering back to the starting point, and no one seemed particularly shaken. One girl, who had been with two guys, was looking around for her friends, and she did seem a little worried, so I cautiously walked over to her, hoping I wasn't falling into a trap set up by the police.

"What happened?" I whispered to her.

"Nothing, really. The fat guy fell right as the security guys were going to get us, and it created a diversion and we all scattered. They're questioning him now, but I can't find my friends."

I sat down, knees shaking. Margaret suddenly appeared beside me. "Hey dude! Wasn't that crazy?"

Before I could answer, Fat Guy walked up to us, swinging one arm, the other hanging limply beside him, like a big, dead fish dangling from his body. "Heeeeeeeeey...are you okay? We heard you fell," I said, cringing.

"No, no I'm not okay," he said angrily. "I broke my arm!"

The blood drained from Margaret's face, pulling her smile into a horrified frown. "Oh my gosh, I'm soooooooo sorry."

"Can we do something to help you?" I asked, wishing I'd stayed home and watched "CSI: Miami."

"Yes, you can call 911. I need an ambulance."

911? Seriously??? But the security officers had caught up with him and were questioning him more, so I just did it to get it over with.

"911, what's your emergency?" a bored voice on the other end asked.

"Broken arm in the Sculpture Garden," I answered, embarrassed. This was ridiculous. "Could you please send an ambulance?"

"What's the address?"

"Uhhh...Sculpture Garden. National Mall. DC."

"I need an address, ma'am."

No one around me was going to know an address...except for a security officer. I took a deep breath, walked toward the officers, and inwardly chanted Please don't recognize me! Please don't recognize me! Please don't recognize me!

"Sir, could you tell me the address here? I'm on with 911 for this man here who broke his arm."

"And what's your relation to this man?" the officer asked.

"NOTHING! NOTHING AT ALL! I'M JUST A PASSER-BY!" I squeaked, panicking.

The officer shot me a strange look and gave me the address. I told the dispatcher and they promised to send an ambulance.

I was ready to get OUT of there. I scurried back to the fountain where my purse and shoes were, and it's then that I noticed a big girl glaring at me and Margaret. "What's her problem?" I whispered to Margaret.

"Oh, turns out that was his date. We kinda ruined it."

With that, we gathered our things and hurried toward the Metro. As we made our way across the lawn between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, an ambulance drove by.

And I've officially had my fair share of Washington culture.

HRN UPDATE!!! (Part 2)

Aug 11, 2009

The day after Hot Redheaded Neighbor (HRN) had been in my apartment (and I in his), I felt almost etheral. The first thing I thought when I woke up was, Did that really happen last night? I got out of bed, slipped on my robe, put Noli's leash on her, and walked down the hallway toward the elevator. As I passed HRN's door I thought, I know what it looks like inside there.

But not only that. I knew what his skin felt like. I knew he wanted to touch mine. I knew he had envisioned himself as being my boyfriend (even if it was joking).

And -- OMG -- he knew I had a crush on him.

At that moment I was utterly embarrassed. I scurried into the elevator, and the doors couldn't close fast enough. I would have to be extra careful not to run into him, from here unto eternity.

The following morning I slipped up, but it wasn't my fault. I had forgotten to be on the lookout for the other witness -- Sam. I was coming back into my building with Noli, and Sam happened to be coming out. We made eye contact, he held the door for me, I said, "Hi!" as cheerfully as possible, and he nodded and walked out.

In the safety of the elevator I realized I wasn't embarrassed having seen him. I was ticked off.

The rest of the day I fumed about the whole thing. Why should I be embarrassed? He's a total jerk for putting me on the spot like that. And HRN should have asked me out by now! What a coward! Uhhh!

But it was Friday, so I couldn't stay mad for long. No sense in spending my weekend stressed out, although the bitter aftertaste lingered. Which is why I decided to let the whole thing go Saturday morning.

I was out with Noli (again...yes I know the visual of me taking Noli out seems overdone in this blog, but listen, I have some of my best encounters when she's around) and when I came back into my building I ran into Sam. Before my heart could skip a beat or my mind could go blank, I pointed at him and said, "I need to talk to you."

He stopped in his tracks when he saw me, but then he saw the expression on my face and backed up to the wall. I should have been thinking, What am I going to say now??? but somehow I was cooler than I've ever been.

"What was that the other night?" I asked, cocking my head. And perhaps Noli cocked hers too. He was caught.

"Umm, you mean the other night when we were talking?" he stuttered.

"Uhh, yah." I crossed my arms and pushed my hip to the right, waiting for his response.

"You know, I just read people really well, that's all."

"But you singled me out. There were two other people there." I cocked my head to the other side.

"Well, you know, I could just tell you're a good person!" he said, smiling, apparently proud of his response that he believed was the equivalent of a "get out of jail free" card.

"Huh? That doesn't make any sense."

He looked down and shrugged. "I don't know, I'm sorry. But aren't you glad it's all out in the open now? You should live your life, not keep things bottled up inside."

Oh HEEEEEEEEEEEECK no. "First of all, I am living my life. Secondly, I had a good thing goin' upstairs. I had a cute neighbor who flirted with me, and it gave me something fun to look forward to. Now that things are out in the open it's super awkward. So please explain to me why you ruined things for me."

Sam sighed. "Look, he's my boy, and he acts normal around me, but he puts on a mask around everyone else. He wants someone who will like him for him, but he's too insecure to just show people who he is. He doesn't want to get hurt, so it's hard for him to put himself out there."

"What, and that makes him special? No one wants to get hurt!" Sam's answers were becoming more and more asinine. I was getting annoyed.

"You know, that night after you left, I told him that you were the whole package -- you're gorgeous, you've obviously got a good job, you're a good dresser, you're nice, you take care of yourself, and you're confident. A woman like you is not easy to come by."

Oh help. He was flattering me to get me off his back. "And?" I asked, ready for the point of his speech.

"And...I told him that if I were a good looking, redheaded, white guy, I'd be up at your door trying to talk to you."

Huh. So that's why he came to my door.

I threw my hands up to stop him. He wasn't giving me any helpful information, and I was tiring of our conversation. "Okay, well, thanks for your explanation. See you later."

I didn't see either of them the rest of the weekend, and by Monday the memory of the horrid incident was beginning to fade. Besides, I had much more important things on my mind. Margaret (my roomie) was finally coming back from her 3-month TDY, and I was hosting a weekly dinner with some Christian friends. Only five people had RSVPd, so I was making my famous cracked mustard chicken with all the Southern fixins. Yum!

While I was cooking I received a call from an unknown number. "Hi, Mary El? This is Steve from the church. I'm calling for a college student wants to go to a Bible study tonight. Can he join you for dinner?"

I cringed -- I'd made a little extra food, but not too much. I wanted everyone to be well fed, and another boy meant we'd be cutting it close. But how could I turn someone down? So I told him okay and gave him my address.

Around 7 p.m. people began arriving, including a couple of guys who read my blog and wanted HRN updates. So I began telling them "HRN UPDATE!!! (Part 1)". As I was finishing the part about him telling me he wanted to touch me, someone knocked on my door. DUN DUN DUN!!!

No, it wasn't HRN. But it was someone who hadn't RSVPd. And he'd brought his wife and young, unruly son with him. Hmm. I was going to have to thaw more chicken.

A few minutes later another knock on the door sounded. I opened it, and two guys stood before me.

"Hi, Mary?" one asked me.

"El. Mary El."

He looked confused. "Oh, well my name is Ethan and I'm here for the Bible study."

I looked over Ethan's shoulder at the other guy and gave him a And-who-are-you???? look.

"Hi!" he responded. "I'm Steve, the college student."

Now I was confused. Who the heck was Ethan? Before I could flip out, Ethan continued.

"While we were downstairs we ran into someone who lives in your building who has been looking for a Bible study, so I invited him to join us for dinner."

Of course you did! RSVP not necessary! Invitation not necessary! Let's put up a sign on the door: ALL WELCOME FOR FREE FOOD!

As I flipped out in my head, Ethan motioned to someone that I didn't realize was on the stairwell near my door.

"Come meet Mary!" he said to the person.

"El. Mary E...." I began, and then the person came into view. My mouth dropped open, as did his.

"Mary, meet Sam," Evan beamed.

All I could do was laugh, but not a happy laugh, a defeated, tired, incredulous laugh. "Well come on in, Sam, and everybody. The more the merrier!"

I turned to the group of guys who had been waiting to hear the rest of my HRN story and announced, "Everyone, meet SA-AM."

Two of their heads popped up, and grins creeped across their faces. I just smiled and nodded. They immediately pulled out their iPhones and updated their Facebook statuses to "Awk-waaaaaaaard..."

What was supposed to be an intimate dinner between six friends turned into what felt like a cafeteria, except I didn't have a hair net. I had set the table with cloth napkins and lit candles, and suddenly people were eating off of plastic plates and sitting on the floor due to lack of dishes and space. It was about 96 degrees in my apartment, so hot that we opened the door, letting in the cooler, 85-degree air. While everyone -- half of whom I did not know -- enjoyed the meal I made on special occasions, I slaved over an indoor grill and starved. But I couldn't help enjoy the idea that I looked very domestic and was handling the situation with ease and grace, and in front of Sam, who would surely report back to HRN.

It all turned out fine, and I felt like an accomplished, Southern hostess who had fed 15 people when she had planned for less than half that many. Sam was civil and enjoyed himself (well of course he did, he got a free, yummy dinner!), and he did not try to "read" me anymore. Everyone left full and happy, and I felt as if I'd won some sort of battle.

Of course it was inevitable that I would run into HRN again, but Margaret saw him first. She relayed to me later that she got nervous when she saw him and invited him to dinner the following week. But he was smart and didn't take her up on it.

Unfortunately, the HRN update kind of ends there. Don't get me wrong -- many, many more run-ins have occurred, but the guy is either a coward or just not that into me. So we are back to flirting in the hallway and never having a real conversation, just the way I like it.

Oh, and Ethan never got my name right.

HRN UPDATE!!! (Part 1)

Aug 5, 2009

Okay people, here's what you've been waiting for. Lots of drama, but probably not what you expected. But then, when does anything ever go the way I expected?

So a couple of weeks ago -- after speed dating was a bust -- I set up a happy hour at Lima with [newly engaged!] Megan expressly to meet guys. Sadly, the night ended with a guy asking us for advice on how to meet women (um, hello!!!).

I skulked home hoping I could at least run into Hot Redheaded Neighbor (HRN), even if I would be unable to say anything to him. I take that back -- Ashmi and Raghav coached me on what to say earlier in the week. Raghav played the role of HRN:

Raghav: Hi Mary El.

Me: Hi! How are you?

That was as far as we got, but it was something.

I stepped off the elevator on my floor, ready for my line, but he was not outside his door. I held my head up high, shook out my hair, and walked to my apartment to get Noli. Once I got her leash on, I stepped back out into the hallway and peeked over at HRN's apartment -- still nothing.

I pitied myself for 30 seconds as the elevator dropped to the ground floor. When the door opened, Noli shot out, her ears laying down on her head and tail wagging furiously. Uh-oh, she saw someone she knew. Could it be HRN?

Miraculously, it was him! He leaned down to pet Noli then straightened up and smiled big at me.

"Hi!" he said.

I stood there, mouth agape. What's my line? I panicked. Say something Mary El! Line! LINE!

"Oh...Hi! How ARE you?" I spit out. But when he replied, "Fine, how are you?" my mind blanked. We hadn't practiced for this! What was I supposed to say???

The answer to my question arrived at that moment -- Sabrina needed to borrow a shirt for a date with Dan Doesn't Talk the following evening. I had never been happier to see her.

"This is my friend who was interested in your friend," I explained to HRN. Sabrina's eyes widened and I looked at her apologetically. But it really was the only thing I could think of to say!

Sabrina began chatting with him, and as I regained consciousness I noticed HRN had a friend with him (Sam). And his friend's eyes were locked on me. I shyly smiled and then turned my focus back to HRN.

(BTW, I wish I could give you more details, but I was literally blacking out during this entire story. I am giving you the account of what I can remember and what Sabrina reminded me of later.)

When the conversation lulled, HRN's friend, never taking his eyes off me, spoke for the first time.

"You're really attracted to him," he said, pointing toward HRN.

Even though he was staring at me, I looked around, hoping he was talking to someone else.

"Oh yeah," he continued. "You're really into him."

"Excuse me?!!" I squeaked.

"You're acting upset, but secretly you're happy I'm saying this. You've been wanting to get this out in the open for a long time."

I was having trouble breathing. The hallway was spinning. All I could do was emit this high-pitched, whisper-type sound that resembled the word "what." During my conniption, I caught a glimpse of HRN. He had a wide grin stretched across his face that was getting wider the more I flipped out.

Sam noticed the visual exchange. "You know, I think you guys would make a nice looking couple. Go stand next to her."

HRN raised his eyebrows and gladly took a step toward me with his arm out. He swung it around my shoulder and pulled me into his muscly body.

OMG OMG OMG he's touching me he's touching me he's touching me.

"Actually," Sam continued, "I think y'all could get married one day."

That was it. I couldn't take anymore of the silliness. I flung HRN's arm off me and spun away from him. "Enough!"

Sam cocked his head. "You don't want to marry him?"

"No!" I squealed.

"Why not?" HRN pouted. "I'd make a good husband. I'd mow the lawn and fix our cars, and I'd protect you."

Okay, well that did sound awfully nice. But this was all just too ridiculous.

"I don't even know you," I said. "And honestly, my dog really needs to pee, so I'll see you guys later." HRN nodded and leaned over to give me a hug. I almost fainted.

Sabrina, who had been standing nearby but who I'd forgotten was there, followed me as I marched outside with Noli in tow.

"Did that just really happen?" I asked her as soon as the door to my building shut.

"That was really weird," she chuckled.

When we walked back inside HRN and Sam were gone, and I was relieved. I'd only hoped for a little encounter, not a marriage proposal. That's just a little much for a Wednesday night. Upstairs, safe in my apartment, Sabrina and I began sorting through tops for her to borrow. Then, as we were rehashing the events of the past half hour, we heard a strong knock on my door.

I crept to the peephole, and, as I had feared, there was HRN. Sheepishly I opened the door.

"Hey!" he smiled. "I was hoping we could talk some."

"Oooooookay, come on in, I guess," I said.

Again, I'd love to give you details of our ensuing conversation, but I don't remember much. I found out he's from Colorado, he's in the Air Force (just can't get away from those AF boys), he's 29, and when it comes to talking to strangers, he's basically the male version of me (he says whatever goes through his head with no censorship).

At some point we were discussing apartment layouts in our complex, and I couldn't figure out what his looked like, so he suggested we walk over there. I brought Noli with me as a little bodyguard -- didn't want him to get the wrong idea.

His apartment was pristine and decorated with African masks, Thai figurines, and framed, scenic photos. So he also likes to travel, I catalogued in the HRN file in my brain. While Noli sniffed out every room, we stood about a foot from each other in the living room, neither of us knowing what to say.

Now would be a good time to ask me to dinner! I inwardly screamed. Instead he said, "You have really nice hair, did you know that?"

"Yes." Oh, whoops, I should have said 'thank you.'

He laughed. Then he looked at me thoughtfully. "Are you high maintenance?"

"What? No! Well, maybe to some people. I don't know! What do you consider high maintenance?"

He laughed again. "We'll have that conversation later."

Then he leaned in for a hug. I patted him on the back, my inner monologue again screaming he's touching me!

"You are probably wondering why I keep hugging you," he said. "The truth is, I really wanted to touch you."

In hindsight that sounds super creepy, but at the time all I could think was Me too!

I walked back to my apartment in a daze. What was happening?