You never get a second chance to make a first impression, as the saying goes.
This is a true story. Mostly.
We were at a restaurant that night, discussing disastrous first impressions. It was a large group of friends, and everyone had a beer or two in them. So I told them about the mysterious barista and me.
“Get a load of my friend here. He showed his dream girl scans of his brain damage to try and impress her!”
My appetite was off, and I found myself somewhat gloomy during dinner.
“Hey man, you look kinda down today. What’s going on? You’ve been pretty quiet today.”
“You ever make a disastrous first impression?”
“Sure. All of us have, I guess.” Adam said.
“You can’t top what I did.”
I explained as best as I could to everyone there. After many months of trying to work up the courage to talk to my beloved crush, a gorgeous barista who worked at a coffee shop near my office, I finally managed it.
“Anyone ever tell you that you kinda look like Sophia Loren? ” I asked as she made my pumpkin latte, genuinely bewildered as the resemblance was real. It wasn’t a line, it was an observation.
“No. Who is she? Is she pretty?”
“She’s a movie star. She’s an immortal beauty.”
That made her smile. But I was serious.
At the time there was a famous picture of Sophia Loren that looked just like her, so when I saw her the next day I showed her. She finally saw the resemblance, and so did her room mate when she asked her about it.
I can’t recall much of what happened that touched me so much that day, but she gave me a blended coffee drink and said some words of encouragement like “go out and save some lives.” After dinner I went to the drug store and got her a thank you card and gave it to her co-worker, who put it in her locker. When I saw her again, she asked if it was me. I said yes, sheepishly. She smiled, and when she smiled it became everything to me. That’s how it all started.
That was the back story.
One day she asked me to drop by after her shift so we could talk over coffee, I explained to the gang…
“So you see I was on cloud nine. It was magical enough, at the beginning. But then I showed up, and fucked everything to hell. I can’t believe I did what I did.”
“You’re right,” Adam said. “I don’t think I can top that. That’s pretty bad!”
“Wait. Let me get this straight. You tried to impress a girl, the girl of your dreams by showing her a scan of your brain damage?” Chuck asked, shaking his head between incredulous laughter.
“Wow. When you put it that way, it sounds pretty bad!” I said.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
“Not really sure. I had them on me as I had just made a presentation on the brain. I wanted to explain how I overcame some pretty rough obstacles to become the pinnacle of genius and awesomeness you see before you. I, eh… I guess it didn’t work out that way.”
“Ha! Your sanity is already in question, but now you have removed all doubt!” He struggled with a bite of his garlic bread. “You’re insane! a total loon!” Suddenly he coughed hard after laughing hysterically to the point of tears and said “You almost made me choke to death.”
“That’s what she said. And by she, I mean your momma last night.”
Alex, a young, handsome guy with an ear plug and spiky black hair we called “Keanu Reeves” suddenly became thoughtful. He chimed in with the rest of the table, but he was somewhat serious. “That’s interesting,” he said pensively, rubbing his chin.
“What you did when you finally met her. You know what that sounds like, psychologically speaking?”
“Self-sabotage rooted in fear of intimacy?” guessed Charles.
“No. That sounds like something someone with brain damage would do. At least you were consistent. Bwahaahaha!” Alex slammed his palm on the table and burst into laughter.
“You know, I kinda get the feeling you’re laughing at me,” I said in mock accusation.
“Shut the fuck up.”
“What the hell were you thinking, seriously, man?” Alex asked.
I had to think hard about that one, because to this day I don’t really know. But I managed an answer:
“She asked what I did in the meetings, and I discussed what happened earlier. We were discussing how the brain repairs itself; about neuroplasticity. I was trying to show her how peer support can change your life because of socially influenced epigenetic effects in gene expression. So I had some CT [pronounced CAT] scans of my own brain handy, and I showed them to her. I just wasn’t thinking.”
“You still have them on you?” Chuck asked. He was a Cal Tech guy, probably the only one there that could read a CT scan and he was well-studied in psychology and psychiatry. He was my wing man on epigenetics and DNA that had invented an instrument that could monitor gene expression in real time.
“Yeah, on my phone. CT scans.”
“Let me see.”
I passed him my phone.
“Looks pretty bad. There’s some atrophy to the prefrontal cortex… some kind of pressure on the right parietal and occipital lobe…CS fluid? Rupture of the dura mater?” he mumbled. “This large mass occupying most of the cranial cavity is worrisome, though. If it is what I think it is I understand why your neurologist would be concerned. There is a medical term for this that evades me at the moment. I’m not a doctor.”
“Why would you know all that?” asked Alex.
“So he could be annoying. But why is it worrisome?” I asked, pointing at the scan. “That mass?”
“What is a medical term for it?”
As they spoke, the barista’s mesmerizing smile flashed in my memory; those moments of shared laughter and connection as she made my latte. Those flashes might last moments, but strike you all at once with the emotions you had when you first experienced them, but with even more intensity, because you know they are gone…like the heartfelt smile when she saw you, but that that once it fell into the abyss of displeasure or indifference, became an unbearable hell and exile. Her walk, an almost ghostly glide in its grace as she approached you that made your heart beat out of your chest; that unfathomable longing as she walked away, it all came to me.
But her eyes, exotic and brown, oh my God, her eyes. The wave that drowned me only lasted a second or so, yet all this and more hit me like a truck after the waiter brought my coffee. I closed my eyes, rubbing my brow. The pang of loss and sorrow that overwhelmed me for a moment almost made me miss the burn Chuck just roasted me with.
I shook my head. Why did I tell them this? Oh yeah. I needed to laugh. I needed to laugh about the very thing that had me near tears that morning.
David, another regular, also chimed in. “Yeah, I see your point. I’d want to hang myself too, as a lesson to every other dummy that walks around showing girls pictures of his brain damage. Dude, that’s worse than dick pics!”
“One at a time please. Chuck, my foot is about to inflict a severe traumatic rupture of your sigmoid colon and anal canal with the possible loss of my shoe.”
“What did you just say, dude?” asked David. “Who’s Sigmund Colon?”
“The shrink you’ll need after I get started on that hair cut. I said I’m about to put my foot up in his ass.”
Chuck gazed intently at the scan. He smiled weakly. Then he chuckled. He tried to hold back a giggle, then he lost it. I never saw anyone laugh so hard, and he got me going too. He grabbed the hapless waiter by an arm and motioned towards me.
“Get a load of my friend here. He showed his dream girl scans of his brain damage to try and impress her!”
“Seriously? ” Jason asked.
Despite his usual quiet and detached demeanor, Jason, the thin, genial waiter burst into laughter, doubling over. Then the whole table cracked up when full word had spread of the brilliant display of courtship I had exhibited earlier that week.
“She call you back?” Jason asked. “You exchange x-rays?”
“She show you her mammogram?” David teased.
“No, but your momma did on my ‘Love Doctor’ Tinder profile.” (I’m not really on Tinder, but if I was I would likely choose that name for the irony.)
“Gotta hand it to ya, Chuck,” I admitted, shaking my head. “I haven’t laughed this hard in my life. I don’t think anyone has ever laughed as hard as I did tonight. Nope, no one ever. Except your wife, when she first saw you naked.”
“Ha ha ha,” he retorted. “You think that up all by yourself?”
“Oh yes. That was one of my deep thoughts as I ate my cereal this morning, staring blankly at the ‘MISSING’ picture on the milk carton; which just happened to be your dick. It was just a blank pic. Weird.”
I turned to David.
“What? What are looking at me for?” he asked.
“That big ass ear plug. Clown shoes and make up too subtle? What tribe are you? Cracka Zulu?”
I cupped my hand to my ear. “What? What? Speak up! I can barely hear myself think. Your pants are too loud. Plaid slacks and a fish net muscle shirt?”
“I’m ahead of my time baby, you have no taste. It was lost in the brain damage.”
“Ouch! Touché, my freaky friend. Touché. But that hair, man, that hair. You ever had a barber that didn’t hate you? There’s a fine line between “proud non-conformist” and a cry for help. Let’s tone it down a little, get you a rainbow wig.”
And so it went on for the rest of the night. Laughter at my expense never felt so good. It was all I had left, and so I took it gladly in the loving spirit it was given. After all was said and done, I could see by the concern in their eyes that they knew I was hurting, and were trying hard to cheer me up.
I may never understand how I managed to fuck things up so badly, and I guess I can’t blame her for what happened in the coming days. Things were never the same after that. As the months went by, it never stopped nagging me, and colored everything darkly. I wondered how she could ever take me seriously after that and decided it wasn’t going to happen.
All I could hope for was that we’d stay friends, because we were good friends. I even wrote her a letter to that effect, as I felt even that treasured friendship slip away. We never talked about the letter afterwards, although I wish we had.
I saw Chuck again the other day, and he asked if I had heard from the barista I was crazy about.
“Not really. I did all I could, short of sky writing. But the cold hard truth is that if she wanted to talk to me, she would.”
“You do have a point. Sorry it didn’t work out.”
“Kinda glad to feel alive again, though, painful as it was. Or is. I’ll never forget her.”
“You tried man. You spoke to her and you thought you’d never work up the courage.”
Still, as he said that, I keep thinking there was a small element of defensive, fear based self-sabotage, but perhaps that’s disingenuous and ignores the obvious. Sometimes I just really do stupid things because my mind is a million miles away. We all get absent minded from time to time, no? Like when a doctor leaves your kidney in his fridge and his lunch under your sutures.
Sometimes we get so nervous on a first encounter we totally lose our senses and say the dumbest shit, do the dumbest things. Perhaps that’s all it was.
I hope so, because the alternative is most disconcerting indeed: I may need to be euthanized.