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Posted on July 1, 2013 - by writerman
As the car crossed the state line, we rolled the windows down and pumped our fists.
We’d been driving for eleven hours. It was the late, early 90’s and I was in my early, mid 20’s.
I was born in a small town in northern Canada. Not quite in the Arctic, but close enough. The kind of place where your Halloween costume had to fit over your snowsuit. On Mondays and Wednesdays an overnight train shuttled tourists up to Churchill to take pictures of polar bears. I don’t remember it all that well, but my Uncle Mark once described it as “The Worst Shithole of a Town I’ve Ever Seen.”
It was cold and snowy and lonely and landlocked. We were six hundred miles from the U.S. border, fifteen hundred away from the Pacific, and well over two thousand miles from Disneyland. Naturally, I developed an unhealthy obsession with California. At least, what I knew about it from watching TV and listening to pop songs. The sunshine, the beaches, the singing, dancing raisins. Most importantly, the girls. In my mind, the girls of California were sassy and fast-talking like Janet from Three’s Company and spent all of their free time at the beach, dressed like extras from a David Lee Roth video. Their hair was perfect. Someday, one would be mine. It was fate.
Eventually we moved west to a new town, now only seven hundred miles from the Pacific.
When I was eight, I saw the ocean for the first time.
In junior high, a girl from my math class came back from a family holiday with an impossible tan and a Knott’s Berry Farm t-shirt. She smelled like Coppertone® and destiny. We never spoke, but I followed her around for a couple of weeks until her tan faded.
After high school, I moved to Vancouver to go to college and took up beach volleyball.
At nineteen, I stood up on a surfboard for the first time.
And then, finally, my big chance arrived. My older brother got in to UCLA. I had a free place to crash in California. I also had two weeks off between the end of my summer job and the beginning of the fall semester, a couple hundred bucks saved up and my own set of wheels. My own four-door, 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlas Sierra, to be specific. Like the commercials boasted, this was not my father’s Oldsmobile. It had actually been my mom’s, but now it was mine.
Rob and Keith, two of my oldest friends, were joining me. Turns out that three is the ideal number of guys for a non-stop road trip from Vancouver to LA. One guy drives, one guy sits up front and keeps the driver awake, and one guy sleeps in the back. When the driver gets tired, you rotate positions. Done properly, this saves money on hotels and gets you to Los Angeles in around twenty-two hours. The first eleven hours were pretty uneventful, but things really started to get interesting once we crossed the state line. A candy apple red car blew past us in the fast lane.
The car was a convertible. A Miata with California plates. There were three passengers. Two blonde. One brunette. All female. Definitely cute. Clearly liked to party.1 At least one of them waved to us as they passed. These were the facts and they were undisputed.
A few minutes later, the Oldsmobile’s four-cylinder engine strained as we caught up to the Miata. We waved. They waved back, smiling. I pulled a page out of the Good Will Hunting guide to picking up girls and slapped a series of large, handwritten notes on the window:
“We’re from Canada.”
“Can we buy you dinner?”
And just like that, we were in. They knew a place. We followed them into Sacramento. At that moment, I was more certain than ever that California was my destiny.
When the place they knew turned out to be a family restaurant just off the freeway, I probably should have seen what was coming. But we were too busy arguing about who had dibs on the hot one from the front seat to notice. Once we got inside, the bright lights of Applebee’s would reveal the truth.
Our convertible of California Girls turned out to be a single mom with two daughters.
The older daughter was fifteen. Oh God. I am a bad person. An accidental pervert. I fully expected local law enforcement to appear and slap the cuffs on us. It was too late to run. We stood there, frozen in shock and shame. Finally, Mrs. Single Mom broke the silence, “What are you waiting for? Sit on down! Y’all must be starvin’ after driving all the way from Canada!”
It was actually a pretty nice dinner. I ate my Cowboy Burger™ quickly, wanting the awkwardness to end, but Mrs. Single Mom didn’t seem phased at all. She did admit to feeling a little suspicious at first, but quickly concluded that we were obviously good Canadian boys who posed no threat to her or her young daughters. How could she be so certain that we weren’t dangerous men? Had she no regard for the safety of her children? I would have given her a lecture about being more careful not to expose her daughters to creepy potential predators, except that I was the creepy potential predator in question. We paid the check and got up to leave. She hugged each of us goodbye, and even gave us her address, in case we needed a place to stay on our way home. We didn’t take her up on the offer, but her words stuck with me as we jumped back on the freeway,
“Y’all just seemed like such nice boys, I knew I could trust you.”
This would not stand. I wasn’t going to let my people’s reputation for good manners and civility spoil our hopefully debaucherous road trip. Nice could suck it. We weren’t going to pick up lifeguards or swimsuit models or burlesque dancers with nice. We needed a new game. We needed a little danger.
My parents have four sons. Chris is the oldest, smartest and, by far, the most responsible. He’d decided to join us for our spontaneous sojourn into TJ, probably to make sure we didn’t do anything stupid. But we had him outnumbered.
You might wonder why young men looking for the love of the girls of California were on our way into Mexico. It was basically a legal matter. The legal drinking age in Mexico is eighteen. And so every afternoon, hoards of students from San Diego cross the border for a night of cheap drinks and bad decisions. We were in fine company. The last good decision we made was leaving the car in San Diego and walking across.
First, we checked into a hotel that Rob’s Lonely Planet guide called “well situated” and “affordable.” For twenty-nine bucks a night, the four of us got a room with two beds and one bathroom. The toilet didn’t flush. I called the front desk to request a working toilet. My Spanish isn’t great, but I’m fairly confident that he told me to, “Fix it with my gringo face.” He might have also suggested something involving a donkey and a popsicle, but I can’t say for sure. Either way, we decided to head straight for the nearest bar in search of working toilets and lonely American girls.
Tijuana’s Avenida Revolución is infamous. A chaotic mass of street hawkers aggressively competing for American dollars. If your only exposure to Mexico was a night out on “La Revo,” you’d swear the local economy ran entirely on tacos, Chiclets, ponchos, tequila, photogenic zebras and pussy. We elected to take a methodical approach to our evening. Both sides of the avenue are lined with bars and nightclubs. All offer a free shot of tequila with your first drink. The plan was simple. Enter bar. Pay for one beer. Slam tequila. Move next door. Repeat. When we met some girls, we’d move to Plan B.
To avoid confusion, Plan B was basically Plan A with girls.
Six or seven bars later, we finally met some young ladies. Eight of them, in fact. They were soldiers. Off duty Marines. Which might sound a little scary, but from what I could tell they were cute, between eighteen and twenty-one, and on their way to being as drunk as we were. And if we were buying, they were totally on board with Plan B.
At the end of the block, we finally stumbled into a club with a decent crowd and decided to stay for more than one drink. The girls hit the dance floor with Chris and Keith while Rob and I sat down to discuss strategy. The conversation went something like this:
“OK, which one?”
“Which girl do you want to hook up with?”
“The Asian one!”
“Aren’t three of them Asian?”
“The hot one, obviously.”
“Holy shit, man. Check that out!”
Rob pointed to the dance floor, where my older, shy, responsible brother was in the middle of what I can only describe as a dirty dancing sandwich. Two girls, one scientist. Just then, a waitress in a low-cut top stopped at our table to see if we wanted her to pour tequila from a giant flask down our throats. I mean, what would you have done?
That is the last thing I remember. I woke up the next morning back in the hotel with a bad hangover and a new poncho. The evidence suggested no females had returned with us. Keith was missing.2 The toilet was still broken.
Fast-forward to seven days later, and I had failed to find love at nearly every popular tourist site within three hundred miles of LA. Venice Beach. Santa Monica. Malibu. Hollywood. Six Flags. Even Vegas. Keith did meet a girl in Disneyland, but she lived in far-off Orange County, so it only led to a couple of late-nite, long-distance phone calls.3 We were almost out of time and pretty much out of money. I needed to clear my head. I ditched the guys and drove up to Topanga Canyon for a surf.
From the beach, surfing appears to have no rules. But don’t believe everything you see in an energy drink commercial. Surfing might seem like the unofficial Official Sport of freedom and rebellion, but the truth is that out on the water, there’s a lot of order to the chaos. There’s a certain etiquette that dictates who gets the next wave and who’s got the right of way. It’s a lot like driving around a traffic circle. If everyone observes the etiquette, cars and surfers flow seamlessly in a delicate dance of stop and go and ebb and flow. But, it only takes one jackass to screw the whole thing up. I paddled out.
Thirty minutes later, I was cold, exhausted and terrified. These waves were much bigger and faster and meaner than anything I’d been on before. My ears and sinus cavities were completely full of seawater. It was time to go in. When the next wave came, I jumped to my feet. So did the girl about ten feet to my left. She was headed straight for me. I tried to turn, but succeeded only in wiping out directly in her path. She leaped off her board to avoid a collision. The wave crashed into us and I bounced off the bottom. As soon as I surfaced, I waved in apology, “Sorry! My bad! I didn’t see you there until it was too late.”
She looked pissed, but she waved me over. “Come here for a second! I want to ask you something.”
I clambered back on my board. I was a bit nervous to face her, but as I paddled over the fear faded and was replaced with this singular thought:
“Oh wow, this girl is really pretty.”
Maybe this was my big chance. Maybe I just needed to get away from the guys to meet someone. I mean, I’d always had a thing for surfer girls. Maybe this was the special girl that California had been saving for me. I swam right up to her and smiled my biggest, friendliest Canadian smile. “Hey. Sorry about that. What’s up?”
And that’s when she punched me in the face.
It was a solid punch. Accurate. Well thrown. I’ll confess – it really hurt. Both my nose and my childhood dreams were bruised. She paddled away without a word.
I swam in, dried off and drove back to my brother’s place. We didn’t talk about it. The next morning, we got up and started the long drive home.
It turns out that my fantasies about California Girls had been all wrong. They weren’t Janet. Or Chrissy, for that matter. They didn’t all play volleyball and run on the beach in slow motion in their spare time. Most of them were too busy to hang at the beach, and one of the few things they agreed on was that David Lee Roth was a douche. But that little punch in the face had shown me the truth.
The truth about the girls of California is that they drove like assholes. They got pregnant in high school. They had Semper Fi tattoos. They spoke Spanish and Farsi and Hebrew and Korean. They had a second job, a sick cutback, a wicked left hook and a little scar just below their lips from that accident. They were perfect.
As we pulled on to the I5, I waved goodbye to the sunshine state, but I knew that I’d return. California was like a sunscreen-scented magnet, slowly, inevitably drawing me back to her.
- To be fair, this fact was in dispute, but Rob was so convinced that the rest of us just went along with it. [↩]
- For the record, Keith turned up a few hours later with a sheepish grin and a sordid tale of pick-up trucks, tacos, late-night border crossings and early-morning narrow escapes. [↩]
- To this day, Keith still owes my brother fifty bucks plus interest in long distance charges. [↩]
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