Essay: A Connecticut Yankee in Orange County
When I moved to Orange County in 2004 to study fiction at UC Irvine, I brought with me certain ideas about California, especially its southern half. A lifelong New Englander, my views on the Golden State had been shaped by TV shows like “Baywatch,” and an unfortunate obsession with late-’80s hair-metal bands. I envisioned bougainvillea-adorned bungalows set into the brush-covered hills, debauched nightclubs and beaches populated with dazzling lifeguards.
Imagine my disappointment then, when what I found instead were strip malls and gated communities, wide streets designed to accommodate all those power-washed SUVs.
In the middle of my first night in my on-campus apartment, I awoke to a dramatic hiss outside my window that my sleep-muddled brain immediately perceived as some kind of primitive threat: Snakes! Lizards! Mountain lions on the prowl! The following morning, I sheepishly discovered the source of that discomfiting sound: sprinklers that popped up out of their hidey-holes like nocturnal prairie dogs to keep the university’s landscape artificially green.
Another surprise was just how homesick I felt driving down those wide boulevards, past all the carwashes and chain stores. I missed my old job, and the safety of my cubicle, where it seemed I could do no wrong. I missed Steve, the guy I’d left behind. Hell, I even missed snow – so much so that I took to watching the storms back home on the Weather Channel.
The relentless Orange County sunlight was too bright for me, I decided. So I kept the shades drawn in my grad student apartment and for the first time in my life bought a pair of prescription sunglasses. I wanted desperately to go home.
But a funny thing happened, one that was maybe even a little magical. The longer I stayed in Orange County, the more I began to, you know, sort of dig it. Or at least to dig beneath my initial impressions of the place and to connect with what was real.
Yes, Irvine had strip malls and planned communities and SUVs that didn’t jibe with my Eastern seaboard sensibilities. But it also had miles of scenic bike paths within a few minutes of the university campus, through protected wilderness, all the way down to Newport Beach and the ocean. And yes, Newport Beach was the constructed beauty of Fashion Island and fashionable people in yachts, but it was also a place of incredible natural beauty.
So, tired of feeling sorry for myself, I laced up my running shoes and pumped up the tires on my bike.
The first time I rode the San Diego Creek trail, I loved how the paved path wound just behind the stores and houses, with developed land on one side, and undeveloped wilderness on the other. I was finally peeling back the mask of commercialization, getting to the good stuff underneath. I coasted under highway overpasses, past stretches of honey-colored wild grass – where those ubiquitous sprinklers never watered – and left civilization far enough behind that I worried about bumping into one of those stray mountain lions sometimes spotted on campus.
Every time I went out, I rode a little farther, finally discovering the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve, which includes over 1,000 acres of protected land. Pretty soon, I was spending hours on my bike, churning away my loneliness and frustration as I pedaled past vast wetlands filled with sea lavender and marsh cattails.
That was where Orange County truly began for me: those solitary rides.
Sometimes I’d go for 20 or 30 miles, thighs burning as I pumped up the steep hills on my return to campus. It didn’t matter if my latest short story had met with derision from my MFA workshop or that Steve had mentioned dating other people; I could breathe out there, with only the sandpipers and seagulls to keep me company.
I never stopped feeling lucky to cross the intersection at Jamboree and East Coast Highway, and to suddenly see a broad band of unobstructed sunlight turning the gray waves blue. It was impossible not to be moved by the relentless rhythm of the ocean, the reassurance that my personal concerns were, in the grand scheme of things, pretty small.
My relationship with Steve also changed.
That too, had something to do with the unexpected charms of Orange Country. He began flying out to Southern California for long weekends and semester breaks.
I should explain that Steve was (and is) one of those arrogant Northern Californians, the kind of guy who views any town south of San Jose as a cultural wasteland. But after a few road trips north, in which I gamely visited his family in Napa and Palo Alto, I was determined to win him over to the OC.
We began with Las Brisas in Laguna Beach to gaze at postcard views of the Pacific Ocean while eating fresh seafood served Mexican-style with ancho chilies and roasted tomatillos.
There was spicy takeout from Chong Qing Mei Wei in Irvine, an authentic Szechuan restaurant that I’d learned about from another grad student whose boyfriend was Chinese. On one especially romantic evening we ate at Habana in Costa Mesa, a place I’d chosen since Steve often raved about the Cuban food he’d eaten when he’d lived in Miami Beach. The outdoor seating, with hanging lights and glowing heat lamps, was as much a part of the experience as the ropa vieja and fried plantains.
One December Steve and I spent a week together in Irvine, and on the last morning before he flew back to Boston, we went for a walk on the beach at Crystal Cove State Park.
Even after living in Southern California for two years, I couldn’t help marveling that it was 78 degrees and sunny in January. Nor that we were strolling barefoot through warm sand while our friends back home were scraping ice off their windshields. But that’s just the weather.
More important, Steve and I had finally decided to commit to one another. In the Disney version of this story, Steve gets down on one knee and proposes to me right there, with the waves crashing in the background, and the sun lowering like a spotlight over the sea. But when is life ever really like the movies – or even a rock music video, for that matter?
The proposal happened later, in my little grad student apartment, with the shades only partly drawn now, my sunglasses discarded on a bedside table. He mentioned something about us getting married.
I told him there couldn’t be a proposal without a ring.
He said, “What makes you think I don’t have a ring?”
Something flashed through me, a zing of fear and longing both.
I loved him deeply, but we still lived on opposite coasts. Even when we’d lived in the same city, our relationship was, to put it gently, turbulent.
And yet somehow, living across the country from each other had brought us closer. This had a lot to do with all those late-night heart-to-hearts over the phone. But it was also Orange County, a place unfamiliar to us both, where we discovered new parts of ourselves as we explored the native landscape.
“Will you marry me?” I asked.
He told me to close my eyes and disappeared into the next room. When I opened my eyes again I was holding a little white box. Inside was a beautiful pearl ring – later, I’d learn it was a family heirloom and that he had meant to propose on the beach but had forgotten to put it in his pocket – and a little scrap of paper upon which Steve had written one word: “Yes!”
Still later that day, I dropped Steve off at LAX for his return to Boston. We talked about meeting up in a few weeks for a long weekend and kissed each other goodbye, then I headed back south on the 405.
When I got to the Irvine exit off 73, I rolled down my window and breathed in its distinctive, familiar scent, eucalyptus and sun-baked sage, an aroma that now registered to me as home.