I despised her breath but stayed for her cooking.


The first time I tried to break it off with Anna, I couldn’t work up the nerve.

We’d been dating for about four months. I was the editor of the student newspaper at Santa Ana College. She was the food and arts critic for her student paper at Biola University.

We met at an awards ceremony in San Jose, where she thought I was an arrogant jerk, which was probably true. We crossed paths again about six months later at a college media convention in New Orleans, where she found me less annoying after a long conversation at the airport. We agreed that it was crazy that although we lived just a few miles apart, we saw each other only at college journalism conventions.

Anna was great. She was smart, funny, cute, a trained baker and journalist. She loved hiking, which I hated at the time. It felt like I had to work really hard for dates because she always wanted to go to some far-flung trail. She loved camping, which I also hated at the time. (Where do you go to the bathroom?!)

Despite my feelings about outdoor adventures, we went on hikes. We had a “How I Met Your Mother”-themed date night for which we suited up, went to Foxfire in Yorba Linda, sang karaoke and played laser tag afterward. We read each other’s newspaper stories and cooked meals together at her apartment. Everything about the relationship was lovely.

Something did bother me, though. It wasn’t that she was a Christian who insisted on abstinence until marriage and I wasn’t religious. (A few of the guys in the newsroom told me I should definitely dump her because of those factors). What bothered me was that, if the only thing we could do was make out, her breath needed to smell nice. But it didn’t. It was awful. It had this acrid, sour odor that would stay on me for hours afterward.

I convinced myself that I had to break up with her for this reason. Relationships for me up to that point were predictable. No matter what, the course of every romantic interaction eventually went unrequited.

It was that way with my kindergarten crush in Downey. My only behavioral infraction in my entire school career was when my teacher caught me staring at my crush’s backside instead of paying attention during math. I wanted to be her husband when we played house, but she relegated me to being the mail carrier. And then in a crushing blow, she never picked up her imaginary mail.

It was that way with my middle school crush. My friends pressured me into asking her out while in the quad where she hung out with the popular kids. I knew the response that was coming my way: “I like somebody else.”

It was that way with an earlier college girlfriend. She left me after graduation for the guy who sang “Happy Birthday” in Italian at Romano’s Macaroni Grill.

See, I’d never had to carry the burden of breaking up with someone else. I’d always been the dumpee — until Anna. I had already avoided New Year’s Eve with her. She invited me to San Diego to ring in the new year. I didn’t want to drive from Orange County, so I lied and told her I was working all night.

I’d been avoiding her under the guise that I was really busy with the student paper. However, Anna and I were scheduled to go to the park, and I decided that was the day. I left my car a mess, with old copies of the L.A. Times lining the floorboard and days-old coffee cups strewn about. It was my insurance policy. There was no way I could take a woman on a date in such a pigsty.

When I got to Anna’s apartment, she wrapped me in a big hug, and before I could say a word, she showed me a picnic basket she’d assembled the night before. She had hand-rolled vegetarian sushi, made brown rice and, to top it off, baked individual pecan pies — my favorite.

I thought to myself, “I want to break up with this girl, but I also really want that pie.” She was a trained baker, after all!

We went to the park in my filthy car, and the entire time she kept asking me: “Is anything wrong? Are you OK? Why are you so quiet?”

Although we had already finished lunch and I could very well have broken up with her right then, I also knew she had more of those pies back at her place. So I lied. I told her everything was great. That way I could get my hands on the rest of those pies, which I did later.

My attempts to break up with Anna in January fell apart. I couldn’t work up the nerve until a month later. I didn’t want to commit to buying her a boyfriend-level gift for Valentine’s Day, and then her birthday was two weeks after. I had to take the exit, or I’d be stuck in our relationship for another month.

Two days before Valentine’s Day, I texted her that we needed to talk. She was wrapping up print production of her newspaper, and I told her I’d call her later that night. She invited me to her campus, but I opted to text — a real wimpy move. I didn’t tell her I wanted to break up with her because of her breath or the hikes or our differing opinions on religion. I told her it was because she and I would likely part ways after we finished our journalism programs.

“Let’s not make this any harder on ourselves. We know we’ll inevitably have to break up,” I told her. (Yes, I was a jerk.)

Anna was very calm. There was no fight, no argument, no probing questions to try to understand why or where things went wrong. Maybe that’s because she was so tired from her production run. Or maybe I just wasn’t worth the effort. Looking back on everything almost a decade later, Anna was exactly the kind of woman I would have liked to have ended up with. I now enjoy hiking and camping and I even forged a relationship with God.

A few weeks after Anna and I broke up, I went to the dentist. It was my first checkup in a long time. I opened my mouth for the hygienist and — to my surprise — she clothespinned her nose with her fingers.

“Pee-yew! I’m glad you came in for a cleaning. You need it,” she said. “Let’s go ahead and get rid of that dragon’s breath so you don’t scare off the girls.”

Guess it wasn’t Anna’s breath after all.

The author is a writer who lives in Orange County and he now brushes and flosses his teeth religiously. He’s on Twitter: @RoldyPierce.

L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the L.A. area, and we want to hear your true story. We pay $300 for a published essay. Email LAAffairs@latimes.com. You can find submission guidelines here. You can find past columns here.

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