A California Dream

(I wrote this for my Birthday Party, May 15, 1990)

I came out here from Southern California about 20 years ago because I wanted to live in a place where people knew there was more to life than going to the beach ‑‑ a place where people talked about books, and pictures, and foreign movies. This is definitely that place.

I live a few blocks away from a dozen bookstores, and my friends are artists, writers, musicians, scientists ‑‑ serious, interesting people. But sometimes, on cold, dark, gloomy winter days, I feel that vague restless melancholy that The Mama’s and the Papa’s captured in their song California Dreamin’ :

“All the leaves are brown
And the sky is grey.
I went for a walk
on a winter’s day.
I’d be safe and warm,
if I was in L.A.
California dreamin’
on such a winter’s day.”

My adolescence wasn’t exactly Beach Blanket Bingo, but I had a lot of fun in the sun. There were beach parties, pool parties, toga parties, pajama parties, come‑as‑you‑are parties. Ah, those precious, sun‑drenched days ‑‑ actually I spent lots of them in libraries, cramming as much knowledge as I could into my brain, so I could get into Radcliffe and come East and leave California and never come back.

The Beach Boys wished we all could be California girls, but I knew I was different. I wore a pink polka‑dot bathing suit with a frilly skirt and liked to stop in at drive‑in after a day at the beach for tacos and a milkshake ‑‑ but I dreamed that someday I’d be wearing a black turtleneck sweater and drinking what we called “expresso” coffee in a dark underground cafe, listening to folk music and talking about poetry and music and art.

At my all‑girls high school, our class colors were Pink and Orange. Our teachers were always urging us to smile. Smile, girls! was their constrant refrain. I smiled. I was cast as a Sunny Sunflower Girl in the school play. I smiled ‑‑ but deep down, I knew that I was sulky, alienated, and confused, like Albert Camus’s L’Etranger, and I couldn’t wait to grow up and go East to college so I culd hang out with kids who were just as sulky, alienated, and confused as me. Little did I know that, deep down, I am a sunny sunflower girl. And I’m still smiling.

My favorite class was French. Sentimental Education, Lost illusions, Le Rouge et Le Noir, Bonjour Tristesse. I learned about sex sitting under a palm tree, reading French novels. Eventually I discovered Marcel Proust, and was enthralled by his vision of the poetry hidden in the ordinary world we live in every day. How could I have known ‑‑ as I read about duchesses and courtesans and elegant soirees and “le tout Paris” ‑‑ that someday Pasadena would appear to me as magical and beautiful as Proust’s Combray?

My family moved to  Pasadena when I was 11 and stayed there until I graduated from high school, except for one year in England, which had a dramatic impact on my high school career.

It was 1965 and Beatlemania struck while I was in London; I was welcomed home as though I had walked on the Moon. The orange minidress and ban‑the‑bomb necklace I had bought on Carnaby Street made me more than fashionable ‑‑ I was a living legend. Naturally, I never lost the faint trace of an English accent, and the aura of The Beatles clung to me, like some irresistible perfume, all through my high school years.

I didn’t actually see the Beatles until they came to the Hollywood Bowl. I went with three other girls; we started screaming the minute they came on stage, and never stopped.  The Hollywood Bowl is open to the sky. That night, the smell of eucalyptus trees was in the air, and the stars shone very bright.

My high school boyfriend was a real California boy. On New Year’s Eve, 1966, we stayed up all night driving around the Arroyo Canyon in his father’s real Thunderbird car ‑‑ turquoise, with fins, and a little round window in the back. We drove around all night,  listening to the radio and watching  the sun rise over the foothills of the Sierras. These were some of the songs that were new that year:

You’re My Soul and Inspiration (The Righteous Brothers)

You Can’t Hurry Love (The Supremes).

We Can Work it Out (The Beatles)

When a Man Loves a Woman (Percy Sledge)

Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys)

You Don’t Have to Say you Love Me (Dusty Springfield)

The Bright Elusive Butterfly of Love (Bob Lind)

Sounds of Silence (Simon and Garfunkel)

Light My Fire (The Doors)

Somebody to Love (Jefferson Airplane)

Mr. Tambourine Man (Bob Dylan)

Califnornia Dreamin (The Mamas and the Papas)

Later that morning, we sat on the curb of Orange Grove Avenue and watched the Rose Parade. All the floats were covered with real flowers; a million roses drifted by.

Four times a week now, I glide through the turquoise blue water of an over-chlorinated indoor swimming pool, dreaming of Santa Monica Beach. Breathing in and breathing out, I can almost feel the thrill of moving with a big curve of pounding wave that crashes into white foam and pulls me through the salty, blue‑green water.

But when I had my place in the sun, I wanted to be urban, sophisticated, and cool. Bob Dylan, Proust, foreign movies like Antonioni‘s Blow‑up ‑‑ to me they were windows onto another world ‑‑ a world that I dreamed of finding when I came to the mysterious East. I found that world. But I didn’t think it would be so cold, and when winter approaches, I find myself singing one of the Beach Boys‘ most existentially profound songs:

“We had fun fun fun
’til her Daddy took the T‑bird away.”

Why didn’t I ever go back? Because I like it here. I like the ferns and hyacinths and maple trees. I like the beautiful old buildings, the museums. the bookstores, the concerts, the serious friends who talk about poetry and music and art. And because it wouldn’t be the same. Cleve Duncan, singing with the Penguins about another little California town, understood this perfectly:

“O, I remember those wonderful dances
In El Monte.”

Proust phrased it a little differently, in Remembrance of Things Past:

“The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at the time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”

Smile. Something about California is imprinted on my brain ‑‑ burned into  my heart. Maybe it’s the light ‑‑ the way it’s really bright, so things seem lit up from within. Maybe it’s the colors ‑‑ the pale, pale green of eucalyptus, the bright, bright pink of cactus flowers, the mountains that look purple in the far distance. Maybe it’s awkward, elegant grace of the palm trees, or the wild azure suprise of the Pacific. Maybe it’s just the remembrance of being young, with my whole life before me.

That’s the T-bird nobody can ever take away.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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