Los Angeles Times - - SATURDAY - By Mathieu Cailler Cailler’s short-story col­lec­tion “Loss An­ge­les” is avail­able from Short Story Amer­ica Press. L.A. Af­fairs chron­i­cles dat­ing in and around Los An­ge­les. If you have com­ments or a true story to tell, write us at home@la­

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 Idaho 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 Oran­gin as 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, one­toothed, 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!” I un­der­stood. 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.

Daniel Zalkus For The Times

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