Dan (not his real name — all of the names in this story are pseudonyms) was an East County boy, and what I’ve observed is that the people of East County take pride in their indifference to the rest of the city. They don cowboy hats and sip Budweiser. They own houses with air-conditioning and swimming pools, and they will occasionally snicker at the extra grand of monthly rent their coastal neighbors fork up to live a whopping 15 minutes west.
I expected Dan to be anti-stereotypical San Diego, and in many ways he was. Raised on a small Ramona horse farm by his construction-contractor dad and schoolteacher mom, Dan came off as the boy next door — an endangered species in So-Cal. He stood six-foot-two with a medium, softish build, and had sun-flushed skin, sandy brown hair, and a sincere, comforting smile. Dan was mildly handsome, yet easy to overlook. A San Marcos Communications graduate, he’d struggled in the job market, eventually surrendering to a construction gig with his father. He was the type of guy who seemed content to nestle into ease and familiarity and mediocrity, rather than dream. His humor, which made complete strangers feel as if he were an old high-school buddy, was his greatest attribute. So, of course I became blindly, pathetically, and almost obsessively infatuated with him.
For our first date Dan picked me up in a late-’90s Chevy pickup that he called Big Red. He also referred to the truck as “she” and occasionally patted her as if she were a beloved dog. Dan was nicely attentive. He opened every door for me and even reached across my lap to fix my tangled seatbelt, sending a chill through me from the slight contact. As he drove Big Red through the city’s rolling, palm tree–covered hills, he recited random useless tidbits about San Diego, such as the name of the city’s oldest sandwich shop.
“I’ve never been the gatekeeper of important knowledge,” he joked, “but I am the Albert Einstein of pointless facts.”
He took me to Mount Soledad, a small mountain near Pacific Beach that is full of some of San Diego’s wealthiest citizens. From there, we could see the entire city and a bit of Mexico. It was a pretty view, typical for a date, and there were several other people sightseeing. I leaned against a railing, my face in the sun, and stared into the distance as Dan spouted a pleasant something about the historic discovery of San Diego. He rambled on amusingly about growing up in the country and the best friends he’d had since elementary school.
I didn’t recognize how much his charm had distracted from other important details until he was long out of my life; at the time, I was too entranced by his chivalrous waltz of door-opening, drink-paying, and nose-diving for my dropped water-bottle cap. But though he talked about the Big Wheels he’d played with as a kid, he never mentioned where he lived or who he associated with, and he never could remember my career aspirations or my home state.
Dan was nice. Because he performed the courtesies I was raised to require as a bare minimum, I latched onto him like a leech. By the time he dropped me off that night, my tongue was halfway down his throat.
It turned out that Dan, my countryish, useless-fact-knowing, Big Red–driving boy next door, was a meth addict. I never would have pegged him as that. And when I reflect now on our relationship, I realize that that’s exactly what being with him felt like — the unhealthy, dehydrating, emotional tornado that defines a meth addiction. The man who gave me vivid images of his elementary-schoolteacher mother, of camping with his childhood buddies and teaching his brother how to build Lego forts, was the first hit of a drug that I was later willing to drain my savings account to get more of.
My Dan high drifted into the day after our date. Giddy, I downloaded, listened, and hummed to his favorite music as I cleaned my apartment and visualized our future together.
But trouble in my paradise came quick. I learned that, like many San Diegans, Dan was a flake.
He had a habit of dropping off the face of the earth. He swore that his meth addiction was in the past, that he was getting help, but I later found out that the addiction had everything to do with his behavior. In the beginning, I told myself that he was just a guy from a laid-back beach city where never following through with plans was part of the culture. I was an outsider from a land of plan-making and calling before canceling, a world where people cared about things like timeliness. Therefore, it was my job to adjust to the environment I’d chosen to live in. I would be cool and not care about the way Dan acted. Suffering inside, I would pretend not to.
Whenever I did show the slightest inkling of any emotion, stress, say, or frustration, whether it was directed at him or not, Dan seemed afraid. “Shh… settle down,” he’d say, covering my mouth with his fingers, as if calming a hyperactive puppy that was jumping up in his face.
Dan was full of promises and plans for the fun things we’d do together. “I have to take you out in my kayak sometime,” he’d say. “Oh, and we’ll have to take Big Red off-roading out in Ramona.”
He eagerly volunteered to help me get some furniture out of storage. But I had a bad feeling he would not keep his word and made sure to double check on his plans the night before. When he told me things were “good to go,” I eased up.
“Relax, Maggie,” I said to myself. “He’s a good guy.” Then I’d repeat Dan’s phrase in my mind: “Settle down, Maggie.”
The next day, Dan was MIA.
“I’m so, so sorry,” he stammered a few days later. “I had pneumonia and took these strong sleeping pills. I was completely passed out. I’ll make it up to you, I swear.”