I met her on the Santa Monica Pier, a whisper of cloth behind me as I paid for a corn dog on a stick. Sunset had hit the surface of the ocean like a distant atomic explosion, grand but distant, a stiff March wind creating a sand storm in my face.
Southern California lacked romance that time of year, too cold to undress for the beach and yet too warm for the gathering smog to lift. Sunsets always came off with splendor, filtered through humanity's wastes, thick with the colors of spoiled water.
She touched my shoulder and said: "Isn't it beautiful?"
I didn't think she was talking to me. Strange women found me inaccessible, one of the wandering lonely for which L.A. was best known-- a wraith of early morning twilight who never looked too closely at anyone.
"The sunset," she said. "It's grand."
I wanted her to go away. She'd invaded my envelop of loneliness and I resented it, like a grain of gravel poking up from under a beach blanket. People grew comfortable with their loneliness and its predictability-- yearning for company only as a fantasy they can control.
I didn't look at her, but caught a sense of her in the corner of my eye, the long brown hair whipping with the incoming wind, and elongated features, a too-thin and narrow nose, matched by a pointed chin and hollowed face. Beautiful only in a haunting sense and not at all L.A.
California demanded tans, blond hair and blue eyes. Anything remotely pale got listed as odd or ill or dangerous. Which, of course, attracted me immediately since I was none of the above.
"Not many people notice," I said.
"I know," she mumbled and took my arm in hers, adding to the growing panic as if the handcuffs came next. Was I one of the thousand weirdoes who wandered up and down the shore staring at near naked women. Was she a vice cop hauling me down to the station.
The hands felt too cold and clumsy, with a sense of her own discomfort.
"Most people are too busy looking at Hollywood Boulevard, or Sunset Strip, or Disneyland," she said. Neither of us looked at each other. My free hand gripped the stick to the hot-dog. Hers gripped the rail. And the sun sank softly down into the water, like a slow motion backwards movie of a nuclear test, each ray drawn back into womb.
"I have some wine and cheese in my bag," she said. "Would you like to share it with me?"
I looked at the corn dog. It seemed unappealing now. "Sure," I said. Why not? I wouldn't grow more comfortable now by withdrawing from her. We walked off the side of the pier and onto the sand, her arm still attached to mine, a cloth bag flapping from her other elbow like some little old New York lady on her way for groceries, reminding me of that dark city and its wet streets, and the strangely shaped people who lacked California's perfection, few tanned, none naked, all shivering with a comfortable kind of fear-- less lonely for living in a city full of lonely people. The loneliness only got unbearable when you left them, like a lamb away from its flock.
The waves crashed over a stone jetty. It, too, reminded me of the east and we settled just short of its wet stone, letting the spray fall down on us like rain.
"My husband's dead," she said.
"I'm sorry," I mumbled, uncomfortable again.
"Don't be. I married again."
We ate the cheese and drank her wine in silence, as the darkness fell over the beach and the bleached sky refused to emit its load of stars. The afterglow of the city's lights held them prisoner, a dull reddish dome over our heads, out of which a plane or helicopter occasionally came.
Then, we rose and I walked her to her car. When she had gone, I felt lonely again, and violated, and couldn't quite explain why-- as if in our sharing something had been stolen from me.