Santa Monica

It’s the 20th day of July. She has no classes that Friday afternoon, and an old friend of hers is visiting the city. They decide to meet up — something they planned to do months prior when she first announced her trip to Los Angeles. She knows the boy back home would not approve, even though he has decided to part ways with her prior. Later on, this issue would come up between them and cause something like a thunderstorm. But on that day, she hurries out of the glass sliding doors for the familiar towering figure waiting on the other side.

He’s a few inches taller than last summer, and his face has lost some of its babyish resemblance. In person, he looks more mature and sharp and three-dimensional than the photos she has seen throughout the year. She appreciates what a year’s difference has done to him. And he can’t help but notice that her hair has grown out significantly, losing its red brassy undertone and cascading down her shoulders in a mass of artificial and sun-bleached blonde. She didn’t have a growth spurt. Her face, however, did round out slightly within the year, starkly noticeable in person than her carefully posed photos.

Los Angeles has a vibe that is different than anywhere else in California, he tells her as they strolled down Ocean Avenue under the palm trees. She nods while he continues on. He thought about the suburbs of Poway, San Diego, its rows of almost identical houses on perfectly manicured lawns and the industrial feel that’s present even miles away from the city center. San Diego, he declares, is nothing like this. There are palm trees and beaches but what it lacks is the laid back vibe. Santa Monica is the place to be.

San Diego has always struck her as mysterious because of how much it sounds like Santiago, the main character of her favourite book, The Alchemist. She loves reading it in Spanish, the original language it was written in, because it adds to the mystery and enticement of the journey. It’s a book about following your dreams, and dreams are enchanting to her. Growing up, she has dreams almost every single night and they’re always exciting, unimaginable adventures that dissolve from her mind seconds after she wakes up. There are a few that she remembers quite clearly. They have stuck with her for years.

They come across a crowd gathered around a group of street performers. Are those performers here everyday? She recalls seeing them every time she comes here. The lead performer, a vivacious young black man, regards the passing couple with brief interest. Are they tourists or locals? Judging from the size of that backpack, that boy is probably not from around here. How old are they? He can never tell the age of kids nowadays. Everyone looks so much older than they actually are.

The sun beats down on their backs, dampening her entire torso and tingling her arms. She can feel her dress plastering onto her body, but she doesn’t mind it. They cross the road from Santa Monica Pier hand in hand. The spacious street, lined with towering palm trees swaying in the breeze, is filled with colourful stores, street vendors and masses and masses of people. The ferris wheel looms in the near distance, its faded pastel cars glimmering in the sun. Occasionally, she catches a whiff of churros, sunscreen and seawater carried over by the breeze.

They say Santa Monica is the most expensive part of Los Angeles, almost equivalent to Beverly Hills. She realizes on her first day that Los Angeles, the City of Angels, has a stark contrast between the rich and the poor. The wealthy, glamorous parts are exactly like how they appear on TV, whereas the impoverished areas reek of crime, addiction, and misery. Some angels live in heaven, while others have fallen into the pit of poverty and despair.

Although the street is as crowded as ever, the people aren’t hustling, but are instead strolling down the avenue at their leisure with no particular destination. Their limbs loose, posture relaxed, footsteps at a perfect andante moderato pace. The breeze has cooled the wrath of the afternoon sun on her skin, and the background noise of different languages fade in and out of her consciousness. She wonders if she’s really here, in that moment, hand in hand with a boy she hasn’t seen in a year.

They stop before an intersection and she takes out her camera. “Smile,” she instructs him. He’s caught by surprise, but nevertheless holds up his arm in a peace sign and grins for the photo. He’s confused about why girls always take photos of everything, but it’s best to not ask anything and just comply.

The camera shutter snaps with a crisp click. It’ll be months before these photos are ready and developed, and another month before she puts them up in her locker and they become her daily reminder of the city. But she wants to capture everything in this moment– the palm trees, the beach, the ferris wheel, and him– on July 20th, a Friday afternoon.