L.A. Affairs is our weekly column about the current dating scene in and around Los Angeles -- and finding romance in a wired world. If you've got a story to tell, we want to hear it. We pay $300 per published column. Past columns and submission guidelines are at latimes.com/laaffairs
For a young man, romance is a lot like cologne: We look forward to trying it on, pulling in its fragrance and seeing if it suits us.
I met Melissa in the early summer. She was from Boise and eager to taste all that Los Angeles had to offer. Wanting to please and impress, I rolled out my L.A. checklist, and she hopped aboard. We took in a flick at the Chinese Theatre, devoured doughnuts at Bob's and strolled along the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
"What about the beach?" she asked one night. "You haven't shown me the beach."
Her soft gaze inflated my ego, and words spilled from my mouth without much thought: "Why don't we have a picnic?" I asked.
Immediately I regretted it. I wanted to tell her that I'd overdosed on Tom Hanks movies as a kid, and that it was a big mistake.
After purchasing a baguette, two types of brie, her favorite salami, a couple of Oranginas and a picnic basket lined with a checkered cloth, I packed up my hundred-thousand-mile convertible and headed to pick her up. I was proud of my basket, and I think the Pinterest population would have been too.
As soon as I arrived at Melissa's, she hopped in and I pointed to the basket. She seemed impressed, her eyes widening and her lips curving into a smile. "I bought this too," she said, showing me a blue fleece blanket with yellow ducks on it. "It was on sale. Cute, huh? And it'll keep us snug and toasty."
I was filled with romantic visions: I pictured the two of us, down the road, using this particular throw every time we enjoyed an outdoor festival. I imagined the fleece protecting us from itchy blades of grass and I could feel it wrapped around our shoulders on 60-degree Hollywood Bowl nights.
While I secured a perfect spot on the Redondo sand, Melissa scampered along the shoreline, her feet sloshing through the salty ebbs and flows. She'd fallen in love with the Pacific, and I'd made it happen. I'd never be Tom Hanks, but I'd been awarded the Paul Rudd Medal of Awkward Charm.
When the sun set, we dug into the picnic basket, slathered cheeses onto hard bread and clinked our rotund bottles of Orangina. I slipped my arm around Melissa as the sun cast its warm hues across an assemblage of clouds. This was great. Why hadn't I picnicked before? Why hadn't I majored in picnicking?
Then I felt hot breath on the back of my neck. I wanted to believe it was Melissa, but there was one problem: She was sitting to my right, her head propped on my shoulder. Slowly, I turned around. And there he was — an unkempt, booze-reeking, one-toothed, presumably homeless man on his knees, his pursed lips only inches from my face. Before I could assemble a strategy, Melissa screamed, jumped up, and tore down the coastline. I followed.
"Did you see that?" Melissa said after we'd put some distance between us and the stranger. "Oh, my God! We need to leave! Movies end that way, you know!"
Back in the parking lot, my heart thudded as I furiously patted all my jean pockets. "I have to go back," I said. "I left my keys on the sand."
And then I added: "Stay here."
"Be safe!" she called out.
Light was scarce now, but in the fragile dusk, I saw the man. He was on his back, shoving some leftover baguette into his mouth. And there, in the sand, near his leg, my keys glittered. Sweat overtook my brow. One breath, two breaths, three. Without being noticed, I swooped down, plucked my keys from the sand and darted back toward safety.
I jingled my keys as I jogged up the ramp into the parking lot. Melissa cheered, and we embraced under the streetlights' milky glow.
Summer faded, and so did our affection. Melissa returned to Boise to work for her father. Some relationships can handle the burning breath of a grungy drunk; ours couldn't.
Months later, I drove the seaside streets of the South Bay. I stopped at a red light. The light was long, so I took in the intersection, twisting my head from side to side. And I spotted him: the man from the beach. He lay on a bus bench, his long hair dangling through the slats, his body wrapped in our fleece, duck-decorated blanket. I could hear Melissa: "It'll keep us snug and toasty." I laughed and shook my head. It wasn't the life I imagined for our blankie. But at least it was keeping someone warm.
Cailler's short-story collection "Loss Angeles" is available from Short Story America Press.¿