Cowboy Christmas

Cowboy Christmas (Juliette Borda, For the Los Angeles Times)

It was our first Christmas together, and I was determined that it would be special.

We had booked a hotel room for the holidays on the sand at Pismo Beach. Jim, my new love, had Mark Harmon hair and a Richard Gere smile. He watched BBC News, read (actual) books and regularly finished the Sunday Los Angeles Times crossword puzzle — in pen.

He was also a no-nonsense merchant marine, so I was resolved that there would be nothing too frilly about this celebration. I spent the weeks before the holidays scouring thrift shops for inexpensive lights, garland and ornaments — with no emotional baggage — all of which could be discarded when Christmas was done.

The morning of Dec. 24, I went in search of a small tree. It was surprisingly hard to find at that late date, but I convinced one of the remaining vendors to lop off the top of a stately Douglas fir. I packed up all of the trappings, and we headed off.

The room was perfect. Sliding glass doors opened onto a balcony with a splendid view of the beach. We dragged in the little tree, and in no time I had it decorated. Even the merchant marine was impressed with my charming holiday display.

Now it was time for the coup de grâce, a romantic evening walk on the beach.

It was then that the merchant marine mind-set kicked in.

"No." It had been a long drive and it was late.

There would be no strolling hand-in-hand on the sand. No kissing beneath the moon.

I wheedled, whined and cajoled — did everything but stomp my feet.

"If you want to walk on the beach," he said, "go ahead."

Fine. I left for my own walk in the moonlight. Which I quickly realized was not very romantic at all.

Soon I ran out of the energy that had been powered by righteous indignation and bruised feelings. Even so, I was not quite ready to head back and make nice. From the beach, I scanned the town, looking for signs of life. Even on a good night, Pismo Beach is a quiet place. On Christmas Eve, it was a ghost town. But the lights of Harry's Bar were on.

I crossed the sand and the empty streets and pushed open the doors of the legendary saloon, officially known as Harry's Night Club & Beach Bar.

The bartender did not seem particularly happy to see me. Even the haphazard Christmas lights looked as if they would rather be somewhere else. Surprisingly, a small live band was half-heartedly working its way through a country playlist to an audience of one.

The only other customer was an elderly man at the end of the bar. Cowboy hat, crisp white shirt, sharply creased jeans and cowboy boots. His coffee-colored skin was lined with age and years of sun. He sat ramrod straight, nursing a beer and staring into some middle distance, lost in thought.

I sat at the other end of the bar and ordered a drink. I, too, was lost in thought until he left his seat, approached me, tipped his hat and asked politely if I would like to dance.

"Quieres bailar?"

Why not?

As the band launched listlessly into vintage Willie Nelson, he gently placed a leathered hand at the small of my back, extended my right hand and, keeping a respectful distance, began leading me expertly across the empty dance floor. When the song ended, he tipped his hat again and asked for another dance.