Purgatory in Paradise Cove
They say that the best travel stories are the ones that go supremely wrong. The train that leaves the station with all your stuff aboard while you get a gelato on the platform. All you have left is a handful of kopecks and a mango ripple cone.
The toxic tummy bug that strikes you down when you have three flights and a complicated transfer — Milan has two international airports, what poor planning! — and you are down to zero clean laundry. Just a pair of flight socks to hold the tide.
This wasn’t like that. The travel was perfect, to be honest. I love California, and a drive down the coastal highway from San Fran to LA, it doesn’t get much better.
Stunning sea views, the sun pouring into our convertible, dark shades and my ponytail bobbing gently in the warm wind — a welcome change from a cold grey drizzly Melbourne winter, let me tell you! — the golden sunsets over the Pacific, lazy evening dinners where the local wines were both cheap and good, and the waiters — we were served by Jesus, imagine that! — delivered heavenly desserts that were light and healthy and utterly divine.
And a travel companion who punched all of my buttons. Slim, cute, taut, funny, and smart. He liked a lot of the same things I did. Travel for one thing. Maybe he didn’t care for my spirituality and I didn’t think his hanging around an airport to spot planes was time well spent, but hey, diversity is the spice of life.
Last day of the trip, we had a night at a hotel in Ventura, and tomorrow it was a morning in Santa Monica to finish off and back home to Melbourne on the late flight out of LAX, once we’d handed back the rental.
But this was a work trip, and talk about super awkward. This guy had no interest in me. None at all. I’d hinted that you know, maybe we could share a room, save the firm some money, but even that had no impact.
Apart from just totally chilling up the atmosphere between us. I kind of wished I’d kept my mouth shut, let him make the first move, like a normal man.
Todd was good-looking, tall, thoughtful, polite — way too polite, if you ask me — not gay, not married, just apparently completely uninterested in sex.
Oh, he knew all about it. As an advertising theory, and how babies arrived and all that. I’d seen some boudoir photography he’d done. Two models pretending to be lovers, nothing too racy, nothing too tame, the barest hint of passion with eyelines just so, lips pouted, heads tilted suggestively.
I do something like that, I put myself into it. I’ll urge my models to get passionate — come on, feel the emotion! — stick my camera in close, and like as not we’ll all be rolling around after the shoot losing the deposit on the rented linen.
So to speak.
But Todd was buttoned down, clinical, technical. I’d look at the glow in a model’s eyes, he’d be checking the exposure and fiddling with his flash.
The only models we shot this trip were incidentals. It was all landscape, and if a human figure in the shot was identifiable, we were supposed to get a model release so our shots could be used commercially.
Well, there were two models. We two. Occasionally we’d slip a figure into the landscape to show the scale. Or the road trip potential. We’d hired a convertible, and he took care with my wardrobe. Sunnies, scarf, a scoop top, and I did a lot of driving back and forth over some of the scenic bits while he handled the drone from an outlook.
But not an ounce of interest. The shots were fabulous, and I had a ton of fun, but not the sort of fun I’d fantasised when I looked at the trip notes before the project and mentally inserted Todd’s lean young body into my personal landscape.
And what a landscape!
The Pacific Coast Highway takes about ten hours flat chat from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It is a dramatic landscape: mountains, hills, canyons on one side; the blue Pacific rolling majestically away on the other.
We had six days to get to LAX, photograph every interesting turn in the road, atmosphere shots of towns and tourist attractions along the way, take notes on opening hours and admission prices and house specials of anything that tourists might stop at, and just, you know, work ourselves ragged during the day and write it up at night.
Sounds awful, I know, but it was great fun. With the right companion, it would have been a blast.
I’d leave my door unlocked, just in case Gentleman Todd wanted to look into my boudoir, but no. Wasted effort. If you ever find some of that drone footage of me driving across the Bixby Bridge, that smile of mine is a teeny bit tense.
We had dinner at El Pollo Loco the night before our last full day. Nothing fancy, but it had been a long drive, and we munched our Mexican-style fried chicken, sloshed our cola, and sent smouldering glances across the table. Well, I did. He was oblivious.
God, but the man was a machine. A wizard with a drone camera, but I had buttons that needed pressing, and I wouldn’t mind twiddling his knob a few times.
I almost twisted his doorknob later that night. Don’t judge me. I was desperate. But a girl has standards, you know? One doesn’t ask. I looked, but didn’t touch. My thoughts possibly scorched the paint, however.
Millionaires, Mansions, and Malibu
We got up at dawn — the best time for photography, but we weren’t going to see the sun rise out of the Pacific, now were we, Todd? — and picked up shots all down the coast. Surfers on sparkling waves, a pod of whales just off the beach, movie star castles on headlands, the odd convertible rounding a scenic bend.
Marvelous work, really, but it was more brunch than brekkie by the time we felt we had enough.
Now, I shouldn’t really name specific establishments — not without the money, anyway — but I’m here to say that the Paradise Cove Beach Cafe is perfection on a stick.
Tables and chairs plonked down right on the golden sand, the surf rolling in barely a champagne pop away — split a bottle of bubbly, Todd? — and an attentive waiter with a line of California patter. “Bloody Mary in a tall glass? You got it!”
I gazed after the waiter with some interest as he made his way back to the bar. Tall, tanned, terrific. He looked like he worked out on the beach at dawn before catching a few sets. He had a smile for the old ladies — was that really Barbra lifting a glass of OJ and winking back? — and a wiggle to his trim little bum that my eyes liked.
Todd wasn’t picking up on that detail. He had his eye to his camera viewfinder and was seizing the moment.
I savoured the moment. And the menu’s delicious spread. It all sounded super good. I wanted one of each, and a morning that lasted about a day and a half to lounge back and try it all.
Our drinks arrived. Bloody Mary for me and a latte for Bloody Todd. “Ready to order?” our waiter asked, lifting an eyebrow and my spirits.
“Old Number Three, ahh, Brett,” I latched onto his nametag and his eyes locked onto mine. Wide and blue and God help me, but there were dimples when he smiled back.
“You been here before? Old Number Three coming your way!”
That’s what it said on the menu. A three-egg omelette with all the trimmings. I could wrap myself around that. And Brett, if he played his cards right.
Hell, he could crook his little finger, beckon me into the pantry, and bend me over a box of bagels. No cards required.
Todd and I discussed the day ahead while we sipped and/or slurped our drinks. Santa Monica was just down the coast. A long wide beach, the famous pier reaching out into the sea, full of fairground rides and souvenir shops and the official end of Route 66. Just made for tourism photography.
Brett came back with our meals. I purposefully ignored him, staring down at the table as he laid down our meals. No wedding ring. Good. A scrummy omelette for me and the Lox Box for Todd. I had no idea he was Jewish. Neither did he, I guess, but I was looking for ways to explain his moral stance.
I gave Brett a hot glance when he asked if we needed anything else. He lifted his gaze from my cleavage, and I nearly told him exactly what I wanted, but I demurely shook my head, “No, maybe a waffle later, see if I have room left.”
This time Todd looked thoughtfully after the waiter. We both did.
“You know,” he said as Brett used one lean cheek to butt open the kitchen door and I nearly came in my pants, “that waiter wants to fuck you.”
“No shit, Sherlock?”
We ate a few forkfuls of brunch. God, but it was good. I took another sip of my Bloody Mary.
I changed the subject. “Change of plan, Todd. I’m going to grab my camera and bathers and get some authentic California surf shots. You can do the Santa Monica stuff on your own?”
He chewed over this while he chewed on his smoked salmon. More of a loner than I was, that’s for sure. He’d relish the chance of some solo time, I figured, while I angled for the exact opposite. Hell, if Brett the tanned beachboy didn’t get me, maybe some millionaire would. There were certainly enough fancy machines in the carpark to indicate a few around.
My eyes were pleading with him. I needed this.
Shit, if I didn’t I was either going to lock myself into a shower cubicle at the lounge in LAX and rub myself raw, or spend fourteen hours squirming in my seat back to Tullamarine, sobbing into my hankie.
Todd gave me a long, thoughtful look, and bless the man, agreed. We made arrangements to meet. Our flight wasn’t until late evening, but we still had to get to the airport, return the rental, check in, go through all the security, and then wait around for boarding.
Todd totted it all up in his head, added a fudge factor — we’d both heard horror stories of Los Angeles freeways — and we settled on five o’clock.
“Or call me if you’re done earlier,” he said, “I’d like to grab a burger at the In-N-Out at the end of the runway.”
I kept my lips shut. Todd was just making an innocent remark. He’d been on about this burger joint under the flightpath at LAX, where you could enjoy a supremely unhealthy American meal while being doused in jet fumes and blasted with a year’s worth of decibels every hour. Oh joy.
It was a planespotter nerd thing, and this might explain some of his behaviour.
I’m not averse to looking at airliners, and maybe taking the occasional photo of them, but preferably from a comfortable seat with polite attendants keeping up the supply of finger food and alcohol that was outside my regular price range while soft music played in the background.
Much like my current situation.
The perfect California tan
We finished up, Todd settled the bill — “Remember to tip, Todd!” I hissed — and I put together a tote bag of essentials. Bikini, sunscreen, camera with a long lens, airport thriller, towel. A couple of other things. Just in case.
There was a public amenities block beside the carpark, and I changed into my bikini. My skin was a patchwork of tan and pale. We hadn’t had a real lot of time for lounging on the beach soaking up rays, and while a convertible let the sun in, the tan stopped where my top had been. And my sunglasses, cap, and shorts.
But hey, there was plenty of skin on display, and so long as I was judicious with the sunscreen, I could even out some of the piebald.
Another woman was there, and I exchanged a few words with her. Her daughter — about six or seven, I guessed — listened intently to my Aussie accent, and I may have broadened it slightly for effect. She watched me with keen attention as I changed, as if maybe a baby kangaroo might jump out of my pouch or something.
I found a spot on the sand in front of the cafe, spread my towel, and took my time rubbing in the sunblock. I was kind of hoping someone cute might come rushing down to help with my back, but no, I had to contort myself theatrically to get everything covered.
As an Australian, beach life is familiar territory to me. I lifted my camera and began capturing the scene. People throwing frisbees to each other, jogging along the beach, surfers making the occasional white spray against the deep blue ocean, teenagers juggling hormones, old men with craggy skin and gold chains, a mother applying sun lotion to her protesting son.
Hmmm. A six or seven year old son. His mother gave him some final words and he raced off into the waves to wash everything off. She glanced at me and shrugged with a smile.
There’s a fine line between artistry and voyeurism, I guess, and after a while I put my camera down. I was feeling hot, and it wasn’t just from the sun. I’d have to run through my shots later, but there may have been a few too many of surfers with golden skin and tight tummies in their wet and clinging board shorts.
Those — and their occasional female equivalents — would add just the right tone to a spread on California. Sex sells, after all, and the closer Todd and I got to Hollywood, the more blatant it was, all there for the enthusiastic photographer.
Ah. Apart from model releases. This is where I needed Todd with the stack of forms.
I tucked my camera away, pushed my sunnies into a pouch, and looked over at the woman on her towel beside me. “Could you watch my stuff for a minute? I just need a quick dip.”
“Sure thing, honey,” she said. We both knew she owed me one.
The water was a shock. Wet and cold on my feet, but I pressed on. A wave splashed up to my thighs and the next one to my navel. I was committed, and I took a run into the next one, diving through it and coming up a mermaid.
I’m not a bad swimmer, and I took a few strokes up and down in the calmer water further out. The waves lifted me up, the water flowing like cool silk along my body, and every time I lifted my head to take a breath, I almost had to pinch myself. This was Malibu, I was splashing through the Pacific, I was living in a postcard.
With a five thousand dollar camera and lens to match sitting in a tote bag on a towel, watched over by a stranger.
I waded out, shaking the water out of my hair, and found my things.
“Thanks,” I said to the lady, still gazing out to sea, her eyes on her genetic heritage scampering along the waterline kicking up spray and sand. “The water’s lovely and warm.”
I checked my camera — still there — and dried myself on my towel. I was going to be sand everywhere tomorrow, unless I had a good long shower to clean out all the crevices. Last thing I wanted was a long flight home feeling itchy and gritty.
First thing I wanted, well it was a toss-up between something hot to drink and Brett. Let’s see if I could get one, the other, or both.
There was a line of chairs at the front of the cafe, but they were out in the sun, and the second last thing I wanted was a case of sunburn to go with the sand in my hair. I’ve been there, and it’s no fun.
Besides, if I sat at the same table as before, I’d get the same waiter, right?
“Another Bloody Mary?” he asked, slipping a menu onto the table.
“Oooh, you remembered!”
I looked him fair in the eyes. He wasn’t blinking and neither was I. “I need a hot coffee, Brett. And that warm waffle. Bloody water’s freezing out there.”
“You got it!” He smiled — and dimpled.
He looked around. “And your friend? Can I start on something for him?”
“Work colleague,” I said. “He’s gone off for a while. Won’t be back until dinner time. Just me.”
His eyes dropped, lingering over my bikini.
“Crazy man. Everything you want out of life is right here. Hey, I’ll be back with your drink in half a second.”
This was good. I looked out on the postcard view with feelings to match.
People were straggling in from the beach, barely clad, hunting down the menu for lunch. Personally, I couldn’t fit much in, and I’d eaten far too well over the past week. A waffle was all I really needed, though looking over the offerings, I wanted more.
I’d have to hit the gym hard when I got home. Those who indulge, bulge, as my primary school teacher had always said when we kids insisted she take a slice of birthday cake. She’d cut one of the slices in two, take the skinny half, and offer the other to the birthday girl. Or boy. Kind of hard to tell them apart at that age, especially if they have short haircuts.
And here was Brett, with a mug of coffee and a mountain of waffles. Bloody Americans with their enormous portions. I might need a doggy bag to get full value out of this. Take it home and live off it for a week.
Brett regarded my face as I surveyed the stack. “I slipped an extra one in for you,” he winked. “Take your time. I’ll be back later to check.”
And he was. I munched through my waffles — a breakfast item, though we were well and truly into the lunch service, I noticed — but I still had a long way to go.
“Fabulous!” I said. “Thanks for the waffles, that was sweet of you.”
“You say you want waffles, you get waffles.” He checked my mug. “Get you another? I can fix you a dinkum Aussie flat white?”
Crikey. Americans pretending to be Australians. About as authentic as the Texas accent that had gotten me laughed out of Fort Worth.
I shook my head. Ouch. Feel the salt caking on my neck. I needed a shower.
“Maybe something stronger?” he went on, raising an eyebrow.
“I’m good. Maybe later.” Our eyes were locked.
“Hey, I get off in an hour, maybe I could buy you a drink somewhere?”
Good man. My smile lit up.
“That would be nice.” I tried Californian.”You got it, man!”
He laughed. “Something to look forward to, then. You take your time. No hurry.”
I shook my head. “I need a shower. Wash all the sand and salt out of my hair. And then I’ll find somewhere shady and read my book. Come get me when you’re ready.”
I managed to finish my plate, rolling the last drops of syrup and cream around my mouth. Brett came over with the bill, and it looked like he’d been thinking about my shower too, because there seemed to be a bit extra in his waiter shorts.
My coffee was the only item on the bill. Brett flickered an eyelid. “Waffle’s on the house.”
So that was an hour to shower, tidy myself up, and dream of afternoon delight. I made sure every inch of me was washed clean of sand, and salt, and sunscreen.
I’d gotten off the beach just in time, because there was the barest trace of pink here and there.
I tried to air-dry as much as possible. No sense rubbing away with my towel and getting more sand on my skin. I took the time to brush out my hair, and apply a few drops of scent in the right places. Clean the teeth, get rid of brunch and stale coffee.
I checked myself in the mirror. Looking good, Britni!
The cafe had a waiting area by the registers. I found a chair, curled up and took out my book, glancing up now and then to see Brett doing his waiter thing and flashing me a smile when he noticed me looking.
I turned the pages, but I can’t say that I was following the plot too closely. There was another, way more enticing, story line running through my thoughts.
I ran my tongue over my lips from the inside, imagining opening them to taste Brett’s tongue tingling against mine. Yum.
Down below, similar imaginings were stirring. I like that first thrust to be slow and steady, holding me full for a few seconds, before another one, better and deeper than the first. Go hard and quick later on, guys, but those first moments need to be savoured.
Finally, or perhaps just in time, I looked up to see Brett standing in front of me. I smiled and stood up.
But there was something wrong. He frowned and twisted his hands.
“Sorry, but someone’s called in sick. They want me to do the second turn as well. Can you wait until seven?”
Oh no! “Oh, Brett! I can’t. I’m being picked up at five. We’re flying back to Australia tonight. Can you get off earlier?”
“Brett! We need you!”
There was a middle-aged woman pointing her finger at Brett. He shook his head and spread his hands wide.
I stepped in and gave him a hug he wouldn’t forget for a while.
But work is work. Sometimes it gets in the way, but it pays the bills. I watched as he turned and took that trim bottom in tight shorts back to the dining area.
I gave Todd a call, asking to be picked up early. He could have an extra few hours at the In-N-Out munching burgers and yelling with delight every time a Boeing blew past. Maybe I could curl up in the car and try to get some sleep before the long night flight home.
Twenty minutes later, there he was. My perfect dream holiday. A convertible cruising the Californian beaches. With photographs to impress the folk back home. Yeah. The travel this trip was great. But I still felt empty inside.
Todd looked at me sideways as he drove out of the parking lot and onto the highway heading south.
“Didn’t work out?” he ventured.
“I got some shots we can use,” I said. “And a lot we can’t. Forgot the release forms.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
I looked at him. There was concern on his face. He looked at me before turning back to the traffic. A week driving on the other side of the road, but you can’t relax.
“Well, we’ve got a few hours up our sleeve then. How about we get a room at one of those airport hotels, sort all those tourist brochures, lay them out in a grid pattern on the floor…”
Bloody, bloody, bloody. The last thing I wanted was to sort out the paperwork.
He reached over and took my hand.
“…roll around on them and see what happens?”
And that, Dear Reader, is exactly what we did. Without the brochures. Or the floor. Or the clothes, for that matter.
Best work trip ever.