I went home to Laguna Beach this weekend. I say "home" knowing full well it has never actually been my home. I was never a beach child. I didn't grow up in the water. When I was seven years old, my bunk bed didn't face a North Laguna sunset—my apartment bedroom window looked out at Liquor on the Rocks in an El Toro strip mall.
I learned how to swim in a community pool during one otherwise uneventful summer in 1986 or 1987. I wasn't a natural swimmer; you wouldn't think of me as a little fish. I preferred indoor Barbies to outdoor sun and spent more time thrashing around in my mother's closet, thumping around in her dangerous high heels, bruising and demolishing my young skin and bones while always pretending to be glamorous. I was a girlie girl and a brat.
When we would gather, all of us United Nations rejects (the Asian and Middle Eastern kids; my family had moved from Iran only a few years before), at the community pool, I didn't think about nature or sunshine or the refreshing splash of clean, cold water in 90-degree weather.
It wasn't until I was in high school that I began to crave the Southern California life associated with the ocean. Something happened. I'm not sure what. I began going to the beach nearly every day. I went to the beach to do homework, to take naps, to spy on surfers and heartthrobs, to sulk or be angry, to gossip with my girlfriends, or just to eat lunch. The beach became my sanctuary. I loved the sun and the way it made me feel. I loved the quiet, the stillness, the enormousness of it all.
I was becoming less of a spasmodic Girl Scout and drama queen and more of a cool, contemplative kid. I was growing up—almost 15, to be exact. I quietly lusted after surfer boys. I dressed like the perfect surfer girl and could morph from happy to indifferent, cheerful to unaffected at the windswept drop of a handful of sand. I suspect that impersonating the tormented was a sexual action. I was becoming mysterious. I wanted to be gawked at and misunderstood with wonder. Only a few of the beach boys in question responded to my retracting advances. To my delight, they were traumatized and complex. They were severe, a little mystical and capable of feeling. And they were much like the ocean itself: full of beauty, sensuality and silence and just as civilized as they were primitive.
I carried on like this for more than a year. On weekend nights, my girlfriend and I would go to small parties where girls were mostly not invited. We would sip our beer, our hands alternating between routine flippings of hair and discreet applications of frosty, pink lip gloss. We were insiders and unofficial cheerleaders for the baffling boys we loved. We wanted to look cute while downplaying our girlishness. I suppose we were just learning about seduction—masterminding moves while offering the guys in our lives the illusion of control. They were not, after all, the smartest boys we knew; they were just the sexiest and most catastrophic to typical middle-class cookie-cutter order. Toward the end of high school, all of these older boys graduated; some moved far away and some stayed around. The ones who remained became depressingly familiar and predictable. They no longer captivated or fascinated us.
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But the ocean, or the sea, the quiet, or the stillness never ceased to control me. I was hooked for life. My allegiances matured: the soft spot for surfing menaces to society transformed into affection for hippie hearts and the progressive politics of Laguna. I sensed the conflict in this city between OC's superrich and Laguna's peace-loving, tree-hugging children of the rich. One can still sense these dichotomies on the streets. It's a city with poetry readings, revolutionary babble and elegantly dressed yuppies who arrive at Saturday-night bars in nothing less than limousines. Sometimes, I would like to banish the whole yuppie contingent entirely, but I am reminded this city is not mine at all.
I've just been a lurker and a pervert. I come here to observe and feel. I see peaceniks at Taco Loco, a longhaired restaurateur from Peru, a small dog without a leash. A statue of a long-lost homeless street preacher and a patchouli-scented trail of 17-year-old girls from San Juan Capistrano, half-naked and high on weed, slithering down the stairs of a nearby tattoo parlor. I see a young man of about 23 sitting on the sidewalk next to his lover, whispering something in her ear between half-smiles and faint laughter. He is wearing a silver bracelet and cupping her knee with his left hand. I see a construction worker filling up his truck with gasoline at a small gas station across from Main Beach. His face is framed with forceful black hair, and his forehead is shining in the sunlight. Six hours of sweat cover his body. He looks tired but gently smiles back at me. I see a lonely girl with brown shoulders and long hair, singularly trotting down Pacific Coast Highway in blue jeans and a white tank top with nothing other than a straw shoulder bag and a crumpled-up book with damp edges tucked under her arm.
I love this city for both its gentle eroticism and its restlessness. I love my memories of entire summers spent here—the mysteriously deserted cove at Tablerock and PCH in South Laguna, the seemingly endless steps that give birth to warm sand, the occasional drumming circle that will evolve on a random Monday or Tuesday evening.
This is a beautiful place. And even tonight, from an apartment building in Los Angeles that may seem cold and white and modern and soulless, I will look out of a bedroom window and imagine the peacefulness of Laguna, of that moment of stepping out of the shade and into the sun, that feeling of warmth on your shoulders as if God is hugging you. I will imagine and remember my non-home home, this city that became a sanctuary.