She died before we could fall in love. But she taught me one important thing.
Beth Atkinson died. She was one of the best first dates I ever had.
It was a long time ago, so we met the old-fashioned way — on Match.com. We had coffee at Mercury Cafe on Chicago Avenue. We laughed so loudly we made the other patrons blush. You could tell they were merely pretending to study or work, peering up from their books and laptops to witness the splendor of a first date gone well.
After that, we rode our bikes to a taco place and talked about our dreams. She wanted to move to France someday. I did this thing I sometimes do where I look at someone I’ve just met and mentally picture what they might look like in 30 years. Where will the wrinkles settle around that smile? Then we went to my place and made out on my couch.
"When can I see you again?" she asked me. This was what I liked about Beth. Most people were too busy protecting themselves to be direct. Beth made unflinching eye contact when she spoke to you. I envied the congruence she conveyed between her internal and external worlds.
I was moving to another apartment in a couple of days. So, we’d have to wait until after that.
We exchanged text messages for a couple of weeks, delaying our second date due to minor inconveniences and somewhat-full schedules.
Then, Beth stopped responding.
Beth’s roommate, Julia, happened to be a barista at a cafe I frequented. "I haven’t seen you for a few weeks. Did you take a vacation?" I inquired. I fought through the embarrassment that Julia probably knew I had gone out with Beth and that she knew what horrible thing I must have said or did — or what gaping personality flaw or physical deformity I must have had — to make her stop returning my messages.
While removing a biscotto from a jar, tongs in hand, Julia froze and turned ghost white. "You didn’t hear about Beth?"
I hardly knew Beth. But I knew her in ways that her closest friends didn’t know her.
Normally, when someone you care about passes away, you have friends and family in common to commiserate with about the departed.
I didn’t have those outlets as I grieved Beth. The funeral had passed. It seemed perverse to try to talk to Julia because she had been riding with Beth during the bicycle accident. It felt selfish to seek solace from a near stranger who had known her so deeply and experienced the tragedy so closely.
As I sat in my dark apartment with a glass of gin by my side, I read Beth’s mother’s wailing Facebook updates. The contrast in loss was cartoonish. How much of my grief was for Beth, and how much of it was just grief for myself?
I wrote to Match.com to let them know what had happened to Beth. Her profile was gone within 30 minutes. I wondered about the other guys who might be disappointed to see her disappear.
When I see people treat each other flippantly, like e-commerce items they can customize with a swipe, I wish they could learn what I learned from Beth:
Whenever I’m tempted — by what I think I want from the world — to forget someone’s humanity or to fool myself into shying away from a real connection, I remember Beth’s blazing blue eyes, patiently locked with mine, awaiting my response.