First Time in L.A. by Mary Lynn Reed

On a bench at the end of Santa Monica Pier, my fingers are shivering blue. Isn’t California all suntans and surfer dudes? It is, she says. But the nights are crisp, and you need someone to sit next to you, put their arm around you, kindle warmth when the cool breezes blow.

A sea gull lands on the ledge. Remember Fort DeSoto? Taking pictures under the pines. Gulls swarming above our heads. What if I moved here, too? Grad school at UCLA. I’m applying. It could happen. 

We’re heading up the Pacific Coast Highway, to his condo in Malibu. She tries to smile, but there are dark lines at the corner of her eyes. She squints toward the ocean, straining for remnants of the sun that’s already set.

When we met, she was working two jobs on the Florida gulf coast. She wrote songs and sang in an all-girl band. I was seventeen and she was twenty-two. Her band played weekends at the all-girl places. Women bought her drinks every Saturday night, never expecting more than a smile. Maybe a wink. If I’d been older, I would have been there, too, sitting at her feet when she played her guitar, losing myself in her wide blue eyes. Instead, I taught her data entry at the insurance company. Told her about the girl who broke my heart, the one who wanted a “normal life.”  

It’s quiet and dark in his empty condo. She says it would be great if I moved out west. We could go shopping and meet for cocktails, and now they would be legal— Remember the Mexican dive on Gandy? We ate chips and salsa and I drank beer out of a frosty brown bottle for the very first time.  

The temperature’s dropping fast and I have nothing but short sleeves. She tosses me one of his sweatshirts but I say thanks, I’m fine. 

I’m back in high school and we’re at my house, my parents asleep upstairs. She’s just driven me home after a night of celebration, slipping around places I wasn’t supposed to go. I was about to leave for college; she was newly engaged. We lit candles and played soft music and stayed up all night. Five years and two thousand miles gone by, and we’re in the bed she shares with him, in the Malibu loft with the two-story window. She is naming movie stars, pointing to the lights they live behind. In the hills. Up the beach. This is California, I say. This is where the days really end.

Mary Lynn Reed’s fiction has appeared in Mississippi Review, Colorado Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and many other places. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. She lives in western New York with her wife, and together they co-edit the online literary journal MoonPark Review.