A dreamy California girl finds her identity right where she left it
I grew up in Corona del Mar on the wet side of Iris Avenue right by an Albertsons, about five blocks from the beach. My girlhood was lived on the white pavement of the narrow streets, all named after flowers and arranged in a grid in alphabetical order. We would break off pieces of ice plant to write secret messages that evaporated in the sun. Summer days meant the beach, where I would swim for hours until my legs were jelly and then eat an ice cream sandwich on a hot, sandy towel. I had never seen snow until our school delivered it by the truckload onto a field so that we could play in it. Almost all the memories of my childhood have a peculiar sun-bleached quality to them: soft blues and grays and periwinkles.
I didn’t know at the time that my childhood was idyllic and privileged. I didn’t know that all streets didn’t have begonias growing in planter boxes and wind chimes placed to catch the sea breeze. I did not know that the smell of sagebrush in the afternoon and jasmine in the evening was a peculiar and specific gift. I was a child. I assumed that all places were like where I was.
I was also a child who wanted desperately to go somewhere else. Whether it was disappearing into a fantasy novel into a world of dragons and maidens or dreaming of traveling the world, the older I grew, the itchier to leave I became.
I do not think it was California I wished to abandon so much as myself. I did not know what to do with myself. Aside from a rising body-consciousness, inescapable in such a tanned, waxed and lifted locale, I did not know how to operate my personality. Introvert, extrovert, I couldn’t tell. All I knew was that I found the intensity of being alive almost unbearable. It seemed possible that if I made my outside environment as intense as my insides, I might find some relief.
So when I was 13, I shipped off to a fancy boarding school back East, with the secret belief that I would actually thereby become a character in a novel. Specifically, “A Separate Peace,” a novel set at the very boarding school I was set to attend. I was sure that in such a place with its stately brick buildings, its marble staircases, its prestigious history, my squishy, undignified, girlish self could be eradicated and replaced with loftier themes. I was also pretty excited about the snow.
Alarmingly, my self remained. I was just as chubby, just as peculiar, just as dreamy and filled with yearning. At the end of high school, I decided that maybe my self could find a home in New York City. I wanted to be a writer, and that is where writers went, wasn’t it? My life would be coated in a glittery darkness. I listened to the soundtrack to “Rent” repeatedly to prepare.
There really is nowhere else in the world like New York City. In many ways, it was the perfect home for a girl determined to have no home, a girl who doesn’t know who she is and has no idea how to find out. Which is to say, it was not my home at all.
The first week I was there, 9/11 happened. My apartment was below the blockade. The only New York I knew was one where anything could happen. Anything meant terrorist attacks, but it also meant finding a woman in a pool of blood as I walked to a bar. It meant getting drunk and being pushed in a grocery cart race through the streets of Queens. It meant making strange friendships with old Greek men who liked to talk about Plato in the local café. It meant dying my hair white then purple then pink then green. It meant not eating and taking diet pills, and then sometimes it meant eating only orange soda and sour cream and cheddar chips. (We called this the “orange diet.”)
By the end of five years, I was no more a New Yorker than I had been on the first day. On one of my commutes into work, I saw a man rubbing himself at the back of an 8- or 9-year-old boy on his way to school. If I started yelling at the man, I would alert the boy to what was happening, and then it would be something he knew about, something that had actually happened to him in his conscious knowledge of his life. If I didn’t do anything, who knew when he would stop or what would happen? I stayed on, silent overseer of this disgusting event, promising myself that I would make a move the very second the boy became aware or the man began making actual physical contact. I was late to work, and I also decided I was done. I was finished. In that single revolting morning, I had graduated New York City.
But where to go? Where did a dreamy, silly girl like me belong? I had lots of ideas, and I moved around some more. Maybe I would move to Hawaii, maybe I would go to India, maybe I would go to graduate school in Virginia. Maybe, maybe, maybe the place I was supposed to be was Montana with wide open skies and bighorn sheep! I tried them all out, and in between failed attempts to start my life, I would return home, to Iris Avenue, to the little beach cottage where I grew up.
On one such sojourn, I met the man who would become my husband. A California boy through and through, he abhorred wearing real shoes or jackets, had grown up camping on the beach, and sprinkled the word “awesome” into every other sentence. There are pictures of him from high school wearing a puka shell necklace. I would never have imagined
him for myself, and yet I found he was exactly right.
He was just finishing up his Ph.D. at UC Irvine, and once he finished we had to leave California once more, this time because of his work. We moved to Washington, D.C., with our first child who was only 4 weeks old. At the time, I wasn’t sure we would ever return to California. He was a neuroscientist, and in academia the one thing you don’t really get to choose is where you live. You move to wherever you can get a job. I was content with this. I loved my husband and my son intensely. We would be fine wherever we were.
In my writing, I had followed a similar meandering path. I tried endlessly to set my stories anywhere but California. California was what was known, and so I assumed it was boring. Surely no one wanted to hear about California. After all, I had moved to all those places to experience the world precisely so that I could write about it. But after I met my husband, something clicked. I started writing about California. I started writing about silly, dreamy girls in California, understanding for the very first time that maybe they weren’t so silly. Maybe they were actually the thing I was trying to write about all along. I wrote my first novel, “The Girls from Corona del Mar,” and it was published by Knopf in the summer of 2014.
The move to D.C. was the first time my husband had lived anywhere other than California. When winter came, he was horrified. His disgust for the weather was hilarious to me, but I had to admit I hated it too. Where were the hot gusts of the Santa Ana winds? Where were the overcast mornings filled with the muted cackling of gulls? I didn’t know the names of any of the plants, and I found I didn’t want to learn them. My husband and I would whisper the names of the plants we had grown up with to each other as we tried to go to sleep at night. Agapanthus. Bougainvillea. Banana palm. Birds of paradise.
When we would fly home for Christmas to see family, I would get weepy just seeing the land again. But how had this happened? How had California become, so incontrovertibly, home?
It was about three years into living in D.C. when my husband and I turned to each other and said, “We have to go back.” Where would he work? Where would we live? We didn’t know; we just knew we had to come back.
Getting all of the pieces to fit together took time, but this past December the moving truck from D.C. finally arrived with all of our belongings. We were home. We were in Corona del Mar. Every day now, I walk my son to preschool at the same elementary school that I attended as a child. On the way, I tell him the names of the plants and he repeats them back to me. Agapanthus. Bougainvillea. Banana palm. Birds of paradise. He sees his grandmothers and his aunts and uncles and cousins every week.
I had no idea how much this would mean to me. For all my dreamy imagination as a child, I could not have imagined this: how different California would look to me now. How impossibly precious everything I once took for granted has become.