California Girls

Zan Romanoff in The Paris Review:

BLOG_Didion The archetypal California girl is long, lean, and tan with knobbed knees and ankles and salt-tangled, honey-colored hair. I am short and pale, with skin that burns and hair that snarls so that I leave the beach pink, itchy, and disheveled. I grew up in Los Angeles, where the land disappears into miles of ocean. Green coastline erupts above and before the surf, going soft as it fans out into sand and disappears into the crash and spume. No one needed to remind me that I was out of place. My body rejected the state, could not enjoy it, looked ugly in it. Surfers rode California waves, stroking her curves, while I looked on, reading a book under my umbrella. I wanted California but it didn’t want me. I read to escape: fantasy fiction, strange worlds. Even New England was foreign, with its dark winter, snow, and sleet. I watched California roll by on countless screens—Clueless, 90210—but this only made the place seem more impenetrably glossy and unreachable. I existed as an aberration, a blip of grey static interrupting the screen’s bright sheen.

I made plans to leave, applied to colleges anywhere but here and talked about needing to meet people who hadn’t grown up in California. We were a breed apart, I imagined, all of us sun-addled, complacent, with our surfer-inflected drawls. (It took me years to properly recognize my own accent; sometimes I think it gets stronger the longer I stay away, yearning for home, stretching and flattening my vowels: “Oh fer suuure.”) We had grown up in a balmy, flattering climate on land that always threatened disaster. The calm that came from being raised in an unstable paradise was too much for me. I wanted to meet my neurotic people. I wanted to go east and get cold. Of course, no one knows this better than Joan Didion. She loves the state as only its exiles can; she recognizes that California is a land for the stupid and beautiful and she knows that there is still a romance to it that, even if you are not stupid or beautiful, makes you wish to belong.

More here.