San Diego cocktail lounges as settings for telling love stories

Chee Chee, Tango Wine Co., Fannie's, Syrah, Number One 5th Avenue, Grant Grill

The stucco-and-tile façade of the Chee Chee bar glares blackly out onto Broadway; inside, the stale air is tinged purple. A half-dozen men hunch over the bar; four of them are drinking from 24-oz. tallboys of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The bartender has stepped away from his post; that might be him studying the jukebox on the back wall, or it might not. He doesn’t have to worry much about his neglected post; “urgent” is not the watchword here. “Grouchy” might be a better call, gauging from the loudest man at the bar. “You know the old saying, ‘Women and children first?’” he asks the man next to him. “Children, I get. I don’t know about women.” It seems that love, sweet love, has struck again.

One neighborhood over, at Tango Wine Company in Little Italy, the lighting is better, the mood is more upbeat, and the crowd is decidedly more feminine. Tango regularly hosts “PMS Wednesdays” — an opportunity for women (and men too, I guess) to “sit back and enjoy a fantastic night of Wine, Cheese, and Chocolate.” The shop sells ladies’ tees bearing saucy texts like “women taste better” and “wine rack.” And it sells wine, grouped into such whimsical categories as “Wines to Impress Your Boss” and “Screw ’Em.”

I stop in during their California vs. Argentina Friday night tasting, order a Prosecco, and take note of Vampire Weekend’s cheerful song “Oxford Comma” on the sound system. Then I head for the back corner, where five women have scooched in close on a butter-soft sectional to share a bottle of Two Angels Divinity (a red Rhone blend).

“Does anybody want to talk about her first love?” I ask. The ladies turn as one toward Sofia: a woman expertly made up and put together in a short tweed dress, a shorter brown leather jacket, dark tights, and sharp heels. “She was rated one of the hottest women in Boston,” boasts one of her friends.

Long before Boston took note, however, Sofia grew up in ’70s Montreal in what might gently be described as a strict Sicilian household. “I wasn’t allowed to go to movies or to parties,” she says without rancor. “You stayed at home until you got married. You know how most parents want their kids to be doctors? When I told my parents I wanted to be a doctor, they held a family reunion and decided that I couldn’t.” This was not, interestingly, because their brand of traditionalism forbade a woman’s venturing into the workplace. “They were happy for me to be a secretary or anything else, just not a doctor.” Why not a doctor? “Because I would have to see naked men, and then no one would marry me. And in order to date, I had to get engaged. It was like The Godfather — you know, with the family following you as you walked.”

Eventually, anyway. There was a year at the outset where she dated a young man in secret, without the benefit of engagement. “He and I were at the university, and there was the library where people studied — where the Asians hung out — and the library where people had fun — where all the Italians and everybody else would hang out. I had a bunch of Italian friends, and they were in there playing poker, and I went in to say hello. And there was this non-Italian guy, just staring at me. I felt uncomfortable, so I walked away, and he kept staring at me all the way down to the next level. I thought he was one of these bad boys.”

Apparently, the thought was not entirely unattractive. “That was around Valentine’s Day. The morning after Valentine’s, I received a dozen red roses from some other person who liked me, and I was bringing a rose to a girlfriend of mine who had received no roses. It was one of those beautiful wintry days in Canada with big snowflakes, and I was wearing a fur hat like the ones in Dr. Zhivago, and I’m taking the subway to university, and he [the guy from the library] walks into my subway car. He said, ‘I like that red rose. You must be a really lucky girl.’ I had never seen him on my subway car before. We struck up a conversation.” That led to coffee, and that led to plans for a Saturday evening date — Sofia’s first in all her 18 years.

“So Saturday, I’m living at home and waiting for him to call, and he calls at five o’clock. The big thing in Canada on a Saturday night — it’s hockey night. The date is to go to a girl’s house: you watch the hockey game, you smooch, and you don’t spend any money.” That wasn’t an option for Sofia’s suitor. “So he said, ‘Okay, I guess we can meet on the subway and go downtown.’ ” But when they finally met up, “He said, ‘There’s one small problem. I spent all my money drinking last night with the boys.’ So I had to pay!”

Amazingly, this did not prove to be a deal breaker. “There was something genuine about him — and I so much wanted that date. I wanted to get out of the house. I was supposed to be studying at the library, so I wasn’t going home.”

She liked the bad-boy persona (“It was a façade; he was good at heart”); he liked the way she looked and that she was as driven as he was. After a year, Sofia told him, “I’ve got to tell my parents. We have to get engaged. His parents were freaking out — they wanted him to be a doctor, and he was getting engaged to this 19-year-old Sicilian. His mom was afraid it would…slow things down. I told his mother, ‘Don’t worry. I want to be a doctor, too.’ So she took a leap of faith. We had an official engagement party, and then we stayed engaged through college. We went to medical school together and training — from Montreal to Boston to San Diego, and finally back to Montreal. It was something like a ten-year engagement, but it worked very well for us. We were soul mates; we grew up together. It was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun — we didn’t have a home, we didn’t have kids, so we could almost be kids ourselves. And we could travel for our education.”

Traveling also revealed a soft spot in her parents’ old-school worldview. “We lived together after we left home. My parents didn’t know — well, they pretended they didn’t know. They would never ask, but it was kind of understood. I think that in some ways, they were happy — I was in these different places, and they knew somebody was taking care of me. My mom would call, and he’d answer the phone, and she’d say, ‘Hi, honey, give me Sofia.’ ”

Their time in San Diego proved seductive. “He loved the beach — running on the beach. That was one of the reasons we came back and started practicing here.” But the freewheeling long engagement was followed by a painfully abbreviated marriage. “When my daughter was two and my son was one, he passed away from acute viral pneumonia.”

That was in 1990. “I’m sorry that the kids never knew their dad,” she says. “I can tell them what a great guy he was, but they never knew him. It’s hard when you have someone that special in your life. Other people that come into your life sense it. But most people don’t, I think, feel competition with it. A lot of men, to their credit, are more like, ‘Wow, that’s cool that you had that kind of relationship.’ I did marry again, and that was great, even though it ended in divorce. It lasted 16 years.”

“What are you writing, again?” asks Sam.

He closes his paperback (I’m pretty sure I see Anne Frank’s name in the title), takes off his suitably chunky glasses, and leans back in his rattan chair. He’s not drinking anything at the moment, but he is sitting in the cool, quiet darkness outside Jai, the bar/restaurant that provides preshow cheer for the La Jolla Playhouse audience. The tanned face below his short, graying hair is not without creases, but the skin between them is in excellent shape, almost shiny in its smoothness. It’s not a huge surprise to find that he is an actor, in town to see his fellows perform in the world-premiere run of the musical Bonnie and Clyde.

“I’m going to bars and asking people about their first loves,” I answer.

“Have you ever seen Sexual Perversity in Chicago? David Mamet did the same thing. He went around to different bars, and he taped conversations, and he wrote a script using that. The movie version was called About Last Night.”

Sexual Perversity in Chicago: Joan says to Deborah:

“It’s a puzzle. Our efforts at coming to grips with ourselves…in an attempt to become ‘more human’ (which, in itself, is an interesting concept). It has to do with an increased ability to recognize clues…and the control of energy in the form of lust…and desire (And also in the form of hope)…”

Rich. But a guy should be careful, looking for life to imitate art, right?

Sam wasn’t in Sexual Perversity in Chicago, but Emily was — Emily, his first love. “I was maybe 28; she was a couple of years younger. The ironic thing was, I had met her mother first. I was doing a play at a community college where her mother happened to be working, and we started chatting, and she said, ‘You should really meet my daughter.’ Then, by the luck of the draw, we ended up getting cast as husband and wife in Close of Play by Simon Gray.”

She was already a minor star; he was “kind of the goofy kid from the prairies” who tripped into theater. “My background is working with kids, using drama and creative drama as a therapeutic tool with kids who have been abused. My brother had been peripherally involved in a community theater group, and this woman I was seeing said, ‘Let’s go to this audition.’ I got a part and she didn’t. And then, with relative ease, it just became a regular thing. I had been exposed to some really good theater when I was young, and I found it quite seductive.”

But Sam’s sober background in social psychology was no match for love’s happy onslaught. “The transference thing starts to happen when you start getting cozy on the couch during rehearsals, practicing lines. It happens easily — you’re involved in some romantic scene, saying these words which are really beautiful and thinking, ‘Wow, that person is saying those words to me.’ I was, like, ‘Oh, my God, she really thinks I’m great! This is how the script is supposed to go!’ I was completely smitten. There’s a great line that Blanche has in Streetcar about her lover: the light went on, and then, when he blew his brains out, the light went off. It was just like that — the spotlight was on for that whole time, three and a half or four years. It was growing up, and all the excitement of acting and being in London and Paris, just really great and fun and interesting and stimulating. Unfortunately, it ended like a bad script.”

Before the end, there was talk of living together and of marriage. And then Sam went to see Emily in Agatha Christie’s play Black Coffee. Watching her with the man who turned out to be her lover, “I thought, ‘There’s something more going on here than what’s onstage.’ She deceived me for a long time.”

The two were back on this continent by this point. Wounded, Sam headed west, putting all of North America between them. But in the years since — Sam is 54 now — “we’ve been able to reestablish a friendship.” Recently, they attended (of all things) a performance of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow.

Looking back for wisdom, he says, “It’s kind of an Oprah thing, though it was years later when I heard Oprah say it. She said something like, ‘Always believe people when they tell you something.’ There were times when Emily said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this’ or ‘It’s too complicated’ or ‘I’m not very good at being in a relationship; I make mistakes all the time.’ Rather than saying, ‘No, no, no — we can do this,’ I should have listened to what she said. People will tell you who they are. It’s more about paying attention than falling, deliciously and romantically.”

Now, he recognizes clues. “I was in a Dutch series, opposite a Dutch hottie. She was married, with kids, and right off the bat we had a conversation about transference. How we’re not going to fall in love, how we’re going to be careful with each other. I didn’t want to be responsible for wrecking her marriage.”

(Sam and Emily’s names have been changed.)

It’s just three ladies and I in the sprawling, wooden confines of Fannie’s in Spring Valley, and one of those ladies, Jillybean, is the bartender. The other two, Heather and Tanya, drift from the end of the bar to the pool table and back again, taking sips of beer between shots. Kings of Leon blare from the jukebox, filling the emptiness: “You know that I could use somebody…”

“I’ve been coming here for seven years,” says Heather, who is wearing a deep-V-necked T-shirt and a shortish denim skirt. “It started because it was around the corner from my house.” Now, she’s best friends with one of the bartenders. “We hang out all the time. This place used to be busy. It was crowded all the time with military; I have no idea why. But it was a bunch of young military dudes, a smorgasbord of deliciousness. Now they’re all gone — the biggest thing was the war.”

Tanya takes a photo down from the bulletin board next to the pool table. “Hey, you want to look at a nasty skank?” she calls out.

“I’m right here,” retorts Heather. “Jesus Christ, is it necessary to talk about me that way?”

Tanya laughs and looks at the photo. “Look at her before I put 500 holes in her face.”

The game ends and the trio settles in at the edge of the bar, customers on one side, bartender on the other. “Breaking Benjamin” follows “30 Seconds to Mars” on the jukebox; everyone voices their approval.

“My first love was actually my first husband,” begins Jillybean, “but he was such an alcoholic that it made me hate him. Now he’s come full circle — he’s paying $4000 so I can keep my house. But I really love Jerry now, so…” So nothing’s going to get rekindled. “But my first love is my first husband.”

Heather hunches over her Newcastle and knits her brow. “I’m trying to remember who the first person I ever said ‘I love you’ to was. I’m seriously having a hard time. Sad. I’m just not a lovey-dovey kind of gal.”

“Maybe your first heartbreak would be easier to remember?” I suggest.

“You know what’s really sad?” she says. “It wasn’t my marriage.”

Tanya’s first love was a girl. “I was 16 and spent ten years with her. After 30, I began to like men. I have a man. I have a really tall, six-foot-four man.”

Heather finishes her remembering. “Honestly?” she begins. “The one, true, honest-to-God complete and utter love of my life I met right here. I was sitting there” — midway along the bar — “at the time, talking to some people. He walks in the door — and again, this is me, just saying what I think — and I’m, like, ‘I am going to fuck him tonight.’ Seriously, that was my first reaction to seeing him. And that is the only time ever in my existence in coming into this bar — and Lord knows, I come here a lot — that I have ever looked at a guy that walked in the door and thought that.”

“Heather!” exclaims Tanya, as if shocked by the manifest falsehood of the claim.

Heather holds her ground. “No, I’ve never thought that before.”

“What about Brian?”

“Brian who?”


“Sunday Brian!” adds Jillybean.

“Oh, that Brian,” nods Heather. “You’ve got to remember, I’ve known a couple of different Brians. You want to see ‘Brian’ in my phonebook? I’ve got, like, five. No, not the first time I ever met Sunday Brian. And that motherfucker doesn’t come in here anymore. He still lives with his ex-wife — it’s a very strange relationship. He stopped coming in once before for, like, three or four months, when he quit drinking for a while.”

But getting back to One True Love. “So he goes and plays this stupid golf game that we used to have in the back of the bar, [plays] for hours and hours.” While he was playing, Heather shifted away from her group, closer to the end of the bar. “I wasn’t talking to anybody anymore, but he thought I was with the guy I had been talking to. He was thinking of leaving. He was standing there” — against the wall at the end of the bar — “and I kept looking at him. He was really shy. He’d look at me, look away, look at me, look away. Finally, I stared at him, and probably one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen in my life: he stood there and started checking over his shoulders. He was standing against the wall — who the hell did he think was behind him? It was the longest one-night stand of my life — we lived together for three years.” It’s a great finishing line, and she delivers it like a pro.

And? “And then he went back to his wife. She was moving away, to Wyoming, and she was taking the kids. And he was too much of a pussy to fight to keep her here. So that’s where they are now. He and I still talk regularly. He’s miserable. And it’s probably only a matter of time before he shows up on my doorstep.”

“He’s waiting until his kids are old enough,” suggests Jillybean. “And then he’ll start enjoying his life.”

“His youngest is ten,” agrees Heather. “And I would take him back in a heartbeat. He understood me. We had so much in common. Everything clicked; from the very first moment, everything was right there.”

Tanya is unmoved. “You would take him back in a heartbeat? I’m sorry, but I don’t get that.” (When she heard that One True Love went back to his wife, she crowed, “You can only run forward, baby. You can’t run backwards. Sorry, it never fucking works.”)

“I don’t get it either,” says Heather. “But that’s how I feel about him. And you know I’m not sappy.” She turns to me. “Most people would say I’m a bitch.”

“But you know what?” says Jilly to Tanya. “She’s not sitting here waiting. She’s enjoying her life, like she should.”

“That’s the reason why I treat guys the way I do now,” finishes Heather. “Because I’m not getting attached. Speaking of which,” she booms, “where are the fucking dudes in this bar tonight?”

“Guys are assholes,” complains Tanya. “They’re useless.”

“They serve a purpose,” counters Heather.

“Buy a dildo,” says Tanya. “Buy the Rabbit, that spins around.”

“I have one of those, and it’s not the same, thank you very much.”

Heather grants that men “lie and cheat” but goes on to say, “I’d be lying if I said I was any better. I’m not cut out for relationships.”

“One thing about you, you’re honest,” praises Tanya. “Why be in a fucking relationship if you want to go fuck around? If you want to fuck around and be with everybody, then fucking do it. Don’t be in a fucking relationship and fuck everybody up.”

“Goddam, where’s your blood pressure, girlfriend?” cautions Jillybean.

“Anyway, that is seriously my story,” says Heather.

Wesley is perched on a barstool at the very back of Number One 5th Avenue’s back patio, drinking a vodka and soda, no fruit. He’s wearing an old Padres ball cap in an effort to stay vaguely incognito — tonight, he’s out to decompress more than socialize. “I don’t even have my phone,” he assures me, patting his jeans pocket.

People are strange when you’re a stranger… — “People Are Strange,” the Doors

(I swear, every song mentioned herein played on the jukebox while we talked.)

The patio is a little bit tiki, a little bit theater (Rear Window is playing on the projector screen behind Wesley’s head), a little bit neighborhood joint (pool tables outdoors!). Most of the crowd is a bit younger than Wesley, who at 57 has crinkly, puppy-dog eyes. These days, he says, “I’ve chosen to be single. I chose it a good ten years ago. My friends are, like, ‘How do you choose to be single?’ I say, ‘It’s just as difficult as it is to want to be married.’ There are benefits to both. I’ve been really fortunate — I’ve had two great guys in my life. Now, I don’t have to have that person in my life to be happy. I have circles of friends, lots of people in my life that love me. My dad said, ‘You don’t want to be old and alone.’ I said, ‘I will never be alone. You’re only old and alone when you shut people out of your life.’ ”

Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone… — “Like a Prayer,” Madonna

The first of those two great guys was David. “He was from Newport Beach, a very strong, independent personality. He actually sued his parents for emancipation when he was 14 and won. I don’t really like guys younger than me, but he was a very mature person. I was 32; David was 21. I was walking out of a beer bar up in Orange County, and he was walking in. I told my friends, ‘I have to go back in. There’s someone I need to meet.’ I went back in, and we ran into each other — he said, ‘I was coming out to catch you!’ I think we had a beer, and then I said, ‘Do you want to get a hamburger?’ He laughed — I had a Corvette, and I took him to White Castle in Garden Grove (we called it Garbage Grove). He said, ‘I can’t believe you drive a ’vette and you took me here!’ We went back to the bar, had another drink, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come back to my place?’ I said, ‘Okay, but I really want to ride your bike’ — he rode in on a 500 Honda. And he said, ‘Oh, God, I’d really love to drive your car.’ So that took place, and we were together until he died. Seven years. He died of AIDS, and I took care of him up to his death.”

Look around, everywhere you turn is heartache…— “Vogue,” Madonna

But first, there were those seven years. “We actually moved to Texas — Dallas. One time, I said, ‘We need a new car. You can’t drive my ’vette all the time, because I don’t want to ride your bike all the time. I have a friend who’s a car dealer.’ He said, ‘Tell him we need a six cylinder. To pull our boat.’

“I said, ‘We don’t have a boat.’

“He said, ‘Oh, we’re going to have a boat.’ And when we lived in Dallas, we had a 20-foot Sea Ray with a Chevy Suburban. Never have a partner that doesn’t see the future.” And Wesley? “I kept him going — I energized his dreams. I could take things that he wanted to do, things he hadn’t done, and say, ‘We can work that out.’ I had a pilot’s license, so we’d go flying. Different things.”

I want to hold ’em like they do in Texas, please… — “Poker Face,” Lady Gaga

Wesley brought David’s ashes back to Newport Beach, but he didn’t move back to California — not yet. “I didn’t want to escape it; I didn’t want to be running away from whatever I had to deal with. My life was there. So I went through the whole closure process. And I met Evan and his dysfunctional family — he had gotten out of the military and was working in Dallas as a nurse. It was almost the same circumstances — love at first sight,” and with another guy 11 years his junior. “He already had a diagnosis of AIDS, and it was, like, ‘Do I really want to get into this situation again?’ Because it took a toll on me the first time. But I fell in love, so I did.”

When you take me by the hand/ Tell me I’m your loving man…That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it… — “That’s the Way (I Like It),” KC and the Sunshine Band

Evan had spent part of his military time in San Diego, and the two came out to visit. “We were, like, ‘Why are we living in Texas?’ So we went back to Texas, quit our jobs, and moved out here. He was an RN, and I was underwriting mortgages.” But Wesley’s company went south, and “I qualified for a government thing to do anything I wanted. Evan started showing symptoms, and I decided to go into nursing to take care of him. He said, ‘Don’t do that for me.’ But I said, ‘So what? I’ll do something else after you’re gone.’ So I worked at San Diego Hospice, and that’s where he died. We were together for four years. He’s never left me. I still have dreams with him. I have dreams with Evan. I have dreams with my mother — she passed away several years ago.”

But lovers always come/ And lovers always go… — “November Rain,” Guns N’ Roses

“My doctor says, ‘You’ve got a bad track record.’ But the whole thing about life — when I was in my late 20s, I saw a rash of deaths, which is unnatural. I was 18 when my best friend got killed in a motorcycle accident. I remember to this day my father saying to me, ‘You’ve just grown up. It’s part of life. It’s what happens. You’ll see a lot of people in your life die.’ But I didn’t know then that I would see whole circles of friends die. You can’t believe how many circles. They’re all gone, and you start over, and then they’re all gone. It’s tough. I’ve been HIV for 25 years. Now I’m at an age where people my age are dying of natural causes. I should be shocked when I hear about it. I should be more overwhelmed. But.…

“When I was in my 20s, wisdom escaped me,” concludes Wesley. “I am, like, super-intelligent, but I did not have wisdom. And I was always told by my father, ‘When you get older, your knowledge and your experiences will create wisdom — as long as you put them together correctly.’ You take your experience, and you want to make other peoples’ lives better.”

I don’t mind if you don’t mind, ’cause I don’t shine if you don’t shine… — “Read My Mind,” the Killers

“I have a really good story,” says April of her first love. “He’s my husband.”

April is out with her friend Kristy, underground in the Gaslamp at Syrah. Even on a Wednesday, there is a buzz about the place — crowds of dressed-up young folk, thumping music, curious seating arrangements under the grapevine chandeliers. Both women are drinking very cold Sauvignon Blanc and nibbling from a cheese plank bearing Humboldt Fog, Stilton, and the rest of the usual suspects, accompanied by a smear of honey. They seem an unlikely pair — April is dressed in layers of semi-dressy black; her blonde hair is styled. Kristy is wearing a plaid shirt over a tank top; her hair is also blonde, but it hangs straight down, except for a swath tucked behind one ear. But it’s clear from their conversation that they share a history.

“I was 14, he was 17,” begins April. “We met at swim at Granite Hills High School. He was totally trying to pick up on me; I think he liked my booty. I was a freshman, and he was a senior. I liked his humor.”

But not all of it. “My dad came to swim to pick me up one day, and he was looking down into the pool area, trying to find me. My dad is an architect, a very clean-cut guy. Kevin said, ‘Look at that guy — he’s so gay! Look at him checking out all the kids!’ I said, ‘That’s my dad! Good luck getting my phone number.’ ”

Still, get it he did, and the two eventually started dating. “Once,” recalls April, “I was in the car with my mom, and we were behind his car. I said, ‘Oh, that’s my boyfriend in front of us!’ He has this bumper sticker that said, ‘I’m A Vagitarian,’ and my mom read it out loud. I’m, like, ‘What’s that? Vegetarian? Vagitarian? I don’t know.’ ”

Mom wasn’t too worried. “It wasn’t, like, serious. We only dated for two months, and then he broke up with me and went to college.” Or, at least, it wasn’t serious on his end. “He totally broke my heart. I wrote in my journal, ‘He’s the love of my life. I am going to marry this guy.’ This and that. I ended up becoming totally obsessed with him, stalking him. I even slept outside of his house. He went to Grossmont and then to UCSD, and he was living at home for part of the time. I was 15, so I wasn’t old enough to party yet, so I would be with my friends and they would ask, ‘What do you want to do?’ on a Saturday night. I’d say, ‘Oh, let’s go drive by Garretson!’ It was fun. A year later, we’d be going to see if he was having a party — he would always have parties at his house.”

It was at a party that they hooked up a year later. “He was introducing me as his wife. I went home and wrote in my journal, ‘I can’t believe he introduced me as his wife!’ ” They even dated for a couple of weeks around her cousin’s wedding. “But I ended up breaking up with him.”

And that was that — for five years. “Then he called me, out of the blue. I used to live in Alpine, and he had to go to El Centro for work. He was driving through Alpine, and he thought of me. He called, and I remembered his phone number, so when I picked up, I said, ‘Kevin?’ He said, ‘How did you know who it was?’ I said, ‘I knew your number.’ He said, ‘Really? I had to call, like, four different people to get your number. How’d you like to go to dinner?’ ”

April held him off for a couple of weeks, then let him take her to Morton’s. “I knew we were going to get married. Two weeks later, we went to dinner with my parents, and I saw my best friend there. She took me into the bathroom and said, ‘Oh, my gosh! You guys are so perfect! You’re going to marry him!’ Three months later, we were engaged, and now we’re here.”

And now Kevin knows the story from April’s side — he’s read the journal. “I wrote everything in my journal, every single thing. He would text me, and I would copy the text, letter for letter. All the details about what we did sexually. Now, he reads it and he’s, like, ‘Seriously? This is kind of a turnoff.’ You know, when someone’s so into you? You’re, like, ‘Why do they like me so much? What is wrong with this person?’ ”

Remarkably, Kristy’s story also begins in high school and ends in marriage. “We were 16 and 17, both juniors. He transferred over from Helix to El Capitan. I was, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this guy is so hot, I need to know who this person is.’ He was big and strong and good looking, and he was different from everybody else. He wore different clothing — like Adidas — and he looked good in what he had on and didn’t care what people thought. That made him more attractive to me. And he played baseball. My family is a really big baseball family.”

They became friends. Then, before senior year, “He asked me to the prom. I said, ‘No, you don’t know where you’re going to be in a year. You might be dating somebody, and I don’t want to commit to that.’ I set him up with my best friend, and he set me up with his best friend, and we all went to the movies together. But I ended up getting kind of jealous — thinking, ‘Why is he with her?’ even though I set them up. Then they ended up breaking up, and he started dating this other girl I was friends with for six or seven months of our senior year. I was so upset.”

He even took the other girl to the prom — but... “Here’s the tricky part. By that point, they had broken up, and we were dating, and it was like a secret. I made him go to the prom with her because I felt bad; it was right before prom, and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. So, I went with one of my friends, and he and I kept trying to meet up and sneak off together. We ended up kind of getting caught by our dates, but they didn’t think anything of it.”

They graduated, “and he got drafted by the Angels. I thought, ‘If I don’t start dating this guy, he’s not going to come back for me. He’s going to meet some chick on the road. I’ve got to get serious.’ So he went away, and we started dating. We’ve been together ever since. We got married in 2003.”

Before the marriage, “I stayed here, but I put my career plans on hold” while he toiled in the minors. “We went through a lot of struggles,” says Kristy. “He got hurt and had Tommy John surgery on his shoulder. There’s no money in minor-league baseball, so I was working four jobs, trying to make it work, paying rent here and paying bills there. I was 23, and I didn’t know how to handle it. He was in Arizona for almost two years; he would drive home every weekend, but I was not so appreciative of it at the time. It was tough being apart for so long.”

It was tough, in part, because while there is no money in minor-league baseball, there are plenty of women. “The girls are ruthless. They don’t care — they’ll go after anything if they have a chance to get out of the towns they’re in. They have this mind-set — ‘I could do better than her, and he’s going to take me with him.’ These are horrible small towns — I’d probably be doing the same thing.”

If you’re going to be the girl back home, “You have to be very trusting and very open. You have to be a strong woman. Once, I called and some girl answered his cell phone. It was him and another guy and a few other people at a bar, and he ended up getting into a car with them. This girl was using his phone when I called, and she answered it. He still sticks to that story. But he was calling me all night long that night, and I was not answering the phone. It didn’t take me long to move out to where he was. I got to see parts of the world I never got to see, but I also saw things I didn’t want to see. I sat at games with a girlfriend, an in-town girlfriend, and an out-of-town girlfriend — all for one player. And girls would look at me like I was the biggest bitch in the world, just because I was his girlfriend. I was sitting right next to him once in a bar, while the bartender was telling him how much she wanted to be with him, what she wanted to do to him. Girls are hard.”

He started his baseball career as a high draft pick in 2000; by 2007 he had made it to Double-A ball. That’s when “he decided he didn’t want to try to come back from his injury. He wanted to come back here and be like a family. Now, he coaches a traveling team for 14-year-olds, and I’m in nursing school. We have a little dog and a little place. We’re together and we’re doing good.”

“I’ve never been in love with anybody,” protests the slight gentleman at the bar in the US Grant Hotel’s renovated Grant Grill. (Later, someone tells me he’s a Somali prince.) He takes my elbow. “This is the man you want to talk to.”

He leads me over to Tony, a silver-haired Englishman in a gray suit, who is just finishing a glass of Merlot. I offer to buy him another, order up a Maker’s Mark Manhattan, and sit down for a chat. (As it happens, the company he works for provided the draperies in the remodeled bar, now more cosmopolitan than clubby. “I’ve got the leftovers in my office,” says Tony.)

Tony has traveled around the world twice and has lived “in all four corners of the globe” — Europe, Australia, “and even, for six months, Alaska.” He prefers San Diego, his home for the past 21 years. “There is no more perfect place in the world,” he assures me. Something to do with the weather and the absence of bugs.

Besides the prince, Tony is here drinking with Tracy, who designs custom handbags that run $250–$1000. Tony works in Rosarito, sits on the local CFO Roundtable, does charity work on behalf of foster children, and enjoys his life. “On Sunday, I’m going to be 65,” he says, seeming pleased at the prospect. “Luckily, I’ve got a good head of hair, the ladies love my English accent, and I have a beautiful lady in my life who is a college professor — beautiful and brainy. We’re going to the University Club for my birthday dinner tomorrow night. We have the perfect relationship, because she has her place in Rancho Bernardo and I have my home downtown, and we meet on weekends. I think that’s the key to success in relationships — not actually being involved all week long. Marriage is for bringing up children, and we’re in our 60s, so we’re not looking to procreate.”

Four times down the aisle was enough. “I’ve been divorced four times, and I still own my house,” he says, grinning. “I’ve got a very good accountant. I’ve married some of the prettiest women in San Diego. I love pretty women.”

Tony’s first love, however, was not among those four pretty women he married. “She was my first girlfriend. My friend was dating her girlfriend and set me up on a blind date. We went to a movie, and then we went for three and a half or four years after that. I was 18 when we started, and I think I was 18 months younger than she was. I was still in school, but I told her I was working.” This was London in the late ’60s, “the Beatles and the Stones and the Who. There were no drugs, no social diseases — just rock ’n’ roll and good, clean fun. We were out dancing every night — I would sleep Sunday afternoon. It was just a fun place.”

But, he says, “I was young, obviously not mature. I was growing up in London, and I was dating too many other girls. We broke up just before I turned 21. The only thing I probably took away from that is, I lost the love of my life. She went out with another guy and had five children. Her mother told me — it broke my heart. I always thought I was going to go back to her. But I never saw her after that.”

— Matthew Lickona

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pass me a Margarita

i really fell in love when i was 60 with a knobby kneed Irishman who was all brass and laughter living in the land of eternal winter with only the Red Cardinals perched on his snow cover windowsill to keep his spirits up

we wrote poetry and laughed together...spun dream scenarios of warm log cabins and bare bear rugs to wrap ourselves in as we discovered our bodies still worked the magic long thought only a memory

his hair was long and tied back with a leather cord which i replaced with a scarlet ribbon...never a hippie...a Viet Nam vet while i was marching against the war...i learned a lot about those 19 year olds who went ...became addicted to hemp and heroin to return unappreciated and shadowy figures much maligned by the public at large during that time

he wandered the country for 2 years with PTSD and a heroin addiction ...and like a good Marine pulled himself up by his bootstraps to join the vast parade of ordinary people living their ordinary lives unaffected by the horror of AGENT ORANGE and war

he had been a vegetable gardener before he went to war..but upon returning and getting a more sober life together he began to grow flowers only

he'd decided he only wanted beauty around him and it would take a life of babying bulbs and rooted flowers to find that again

he died last year

Wow, Nan. What a great story. Condolences.

Ditto, nan. As usual, you cause the breath--and time--to catch. xoxoxo

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