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L.A. AFFAIRS

Suddenly, it's unfriendly territory

Their love played out in Malibu, the Santa Monica Pier and other Westside spots. But after the breakup, that area became his no-man's land.

By Darren Manley

October 13, 2012

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When you get dumped, not only do you lose the person you loved, you also lose the places where that love played out. Spots that once welcomed you become enemy territory — collateral damage that takes years to repair.

I met Nicky in 2005 when she was a sophomore at Pepperdine, triple-majoring in international relations, German and success. I was a budding F. Scott Fitzgerald shelving books at a library in Temple City. Because of her ambitious schedule, I made the 100-mile round trip to Malibu every weekend in my old Chevy. We fell in love on PCH, and every inch of that ribboned coastline felt like home. We babysat for friends at Point Dume. We stuffed ourselves with panang curry at Cholada. We daydreamed on the warm sand of Zuma Beach. We talked about the beach-side house we'd buy and the dazzling parties we'd throw.

Finally, I proposed to her at the Santa Monica Pier, the site of our first date. I slipped the ring on her finger and she began to cry, as if she'd already had a premonition that, just five months later, we'd break up on that very spot.

"There's someone else," she said, announcing her withdrawal. "Someone with direction. With drive."

That patch of ground I'd grown to love as much as I loved her now made me sick. The sand went from Topanga taupe to tan puke; the sparkling water and neon signs looked like they'd been colored in by third-graders. By the time I hit the 10 East for the long drive home, the sun was gone and had taken my future with it.

Four years passed. I became a chronic dater and had my fun — ample fun. But I rarely traveled west of downtown L.A. Between that fortress of skyscrapers and the ocean was my no-man's land: a radioactive, emotional waste.

Until I met April.

She was the girl who invented playing it safe. We emailed for two months before she let me take her out. Like me, she felt trapped by the geography of her life, and she wanted a man who could coax her outside her self-made bunker. When I picked her up for our first date — stargazing at Griffith Observatory — I realized that she had already begun to force me from mine. Our first kiss felt like the fourth, or the 50th. The distant lights of Santa Monica blinked, as when power is restored after a blackout. We fluttered toward them like moths escaped from a shoe box.

Crossing boundaries is never easy, but I inched us farther west on every date. From cupcake tasting in Hollywood to tango lessons in Westwood, we opened our kimonos just enough to show our scars. Then we broached the topic of marriage and I dropped my kimono to the ground.

I picked her up on a Saturday and took the 101 Freeway to Malibu Canyon. I could have driven that sunward route with a blindfold, but when I saw PCH peek over the horizon, I felt like Ulysses coming home to Ithaca. April squeezed my hand as if she knew all about my personal Odyssey. We spent the afternoon at Zuma Beach. I'd always wondered how an actor in a long-running play could recite the same lines with a new costar and still make them meaningful, and now I knew. As we looked at the glittering ocean, I saw that my story had rewritten itself.

Now we wiped guacamole from each others' lips at La Salsa. We named our future kids after Greek gods at the Getty Villa. We rode the Pacific Wheel at the Santa Monica Pier and whispered across checkered tablecloths at Bruno's on Ocean Avenue. My love for April rekindled old coals where my dreams had once burned bright.

After one of our trips to Zuma, I poured a fistful of sand into an empty wine bottle. I challenged April to write a note to me, as I would to her, then seal them in the bottle and read them back at the beach the next year. I finished my note in 10 seconds. Hers took a half hour. She didn't know it, but I had just asked her to marry me.

But we never opened the bottle. We were great at the trappings of young love but miles apart in substance. So we went our separate ways, back toward the rising sun.

I don't have to tell you my reaction. For weeks, I barely went west of my block, let alone Los Angeles. But then it occurred to me that since feelings come and go, they shouldn't be bound by geography. The coast wasn't the fickle lover I supposed it to be. There were good memories in addition to the bad. Maybe, I thought, I could acknowledge them before it was too late.

So I drove to Santa Monica one afternoon and walked the pier. I fed the birds, dipped my feet in the water and watched the rolling tide. I smiled at children building lopsided sand castles that wouldn't last and realized that my life too was a slate and that I alone held the marker. When — and where — the next chapter would start was entirely up to me.

Darren Manley lives in Temple City. He is writing his first book, a memoir.

L.A. Affairs chronicles romance and relationships. Past columns are archived at latimes.com/laaffairs. If you have comments to share or a story to tell, write us at home@latimes.com.