I’m in Los Angeles for a for a few days, back in the house where I grew up. San Francisco is only an hour away by plane, but I don’t get down here very often.
When I graduated from high school, I couldn’t wait to get away. My senior class went to Disneyland the night of our high school graduation and got home early the next morning–around 6:00 a.m.. While my classmates cried and hugged each other goodbye, I remember getting off the bus, walking out of the school parking lot, thinking, “I’m done with this place.” It’s not that I didn’t enjoy growing up in Palos Verdes; I did. But I was ready for something new, a bigger pond.
After college up north, I came back to Los Angeles, and moved into a condo downtown. This was before living downtown was cool. The streets were deserted after 5 p.m. when all the office workers went home. There weren’t any grocery stores. My husband and I jokingly called it Gotham City. The condo was located in the old Pacific Stock Exchange building, which meant there were lots of wonderful architectural elements, but the building was located a few blocks from skid row. After work, for entertainment, we’d sit in the window and watch drug deals go down in the alley. We filled beer bottles with water and dropped them on the rats. But we could walk to the experimental theater up the street for last-minute rush tickets, and since artists were just moving into nearby lofts, we went to art exhibits in big industrial warehouses. We still drove all the way to Pasadena for groceries, and across town to West LA to see a movie, but I didn’t mind. I loved being an urban girl.
The first house we bought was in Pasadena. I loved that too. Wonderful old houses, lots of great restaurants, plenty of entertainment . . . But my husband, an East Coast transplant, hated all the concrete. He needed more open space. So, soon our first daughter was born, we moved back to Palos Verdes. I understood why my husband wanted to live there. The red tile roofs, the ocean views–it was beautiful–like a town in the Mediterranean.
But I’d never been a person who imagined herself living out her entire life in one place, especially the place where she grew up, so to suddenly find myself back in the old neighborhood, shopping in the same markets, eating at the same restaurants, driving the same streets at 30 that I drove at 16, was hard. Maybe, if I’d grown up in New York or San Francisco I wouldn’t have minded so much. But all I could think was that there was a big world out there, and I was missing it.
Part of the reason I don’t come back to PV very often, is that I don’t feel like myself when I’m here. I feel like someone I knew before; an paler, stiffer, more muted version of me. Yesterday, my mom picked me up at the airport, and as we drove up the hill, through the traffic triangle decorated with crisp American flags, past the Neptune fountain and the fire station, I felt like someone had put a pillow over my face. Some things had changed–a new park, lots of newly remodeled houses–but a lot was exactly the same.
I still felt smothered and grumpy this afternoon, so I drove down to the beach. It was late in the day. A hint of winter tinged the air. A few people, bundled in fleece, walked their dogs. But for all my grumpiness, something shifted the instant I stepped out of the car. I smelled ocean salt on the breeze; listened to the gulls screech, and the waves tumble then recede. As I watched a lone sailboat drift by, and a few determined boys in wetsuits paddle into the surf, I accepted how I’ve been shaped by this place.
On Saturdays, when my sister and I were little, we followed my dad down the cliffs and played in the tide pools while he fished off a big rock. Sometimes, my family went camping. We piled in the Winnebego and drove to one of the state beaches up the coast. While my dad waded out into the surf, fishing pole in hand, we drew in the sand, collected shells and seaweed, and dug for sand crabs. Dinner was a sandy blend of fried fish, fried potatoes and canned corn. We went to bed to the sound of the tide. And once a year, thousands of Grunion rode the waves onto shore and mated under a silvery moon. In bare feet, with our pants rolled up to our knees, we scooped them up by the handfuls and tossed them into our buckets. More fried fish and potatoes, but with a slice of white bread to wash down the bones that stuck in our throats.
In high school, my friend Nan and I occasionally ditched third-period journalism and drove to this same beach. I ate Pepperidge Farm Parmesan Goldfish and Nan smoked clove cigarettes as we sat at the lifeguard station and watched the waves. Sometimes, in winter, the sky was so misty we couldn’t tell where it ended and where the ocean began. A curtain of gray.
My dad says one reason he disliked Louisiana was because he couldn’t see past the tree line. He felt stunted, hemmed in, strangled. He says he loves living by the Pacific because he can see to the horizon. It reminds him of life’s endless possibilities. He doesn’t want to be buried in Louisiana, even though the rest of his family is there. He wants his ashes sprinkled on the ocean.
My experience in Louisiana is different. I love the place. Slowly but surely, I’m coming to think of it as my second home. But part of me will always belong to California, to Palos Verdes. There’s still nothing more comforting than smelling the ocean and hearing the waves break on the sand.