When I turned 22, I decided that I wanted a boyfriend.
There was no logical reason for this, except that, barely old enough to strut past bouncers with my valid ID, I was wrapping up my final months in the Navy. I’d gone in right after high school, and Uncle Sam had held me on a tight leash; I spent four years squirming in ranks like a rambunctious puppy. Civilian freedom felt like the popped cork of a shaken champagne bottle. I was facing college, a career, and the option to book it to Timbuktu, if I pleased. So, looking back now, I’m stumped as to how my heart mustered the desire to bounce from one commitment to another.
Maybe a boy was the aspirin for my hangover — from booze and life. The two went hand in hand for me in those days. At 21, I was residing in the ideal habitat for novice bar-hopping. My overpriced, two-bedroom, 550-square-foot apartment was parked between Mission Bay and the Pacific Ocean, and I gleefully crashed in the hub of beer bongs and body shots. It didn’t matter that my living room was within arm’s reach of my bed, because I was also stumbling distance from Corona-littered white sand, and a cheap cab fare away from the drunken, surfer-soaked Garnet strip. I was surrounded by chivalrous neighbors who never wore shirts and always had a line of cocaine or two to lend.
But after a year of Jägerbombs that ended too often in barefoot staggers into parties I would never remember, and one too many walks of shame from this or that musician’s beer-stained sofa, I urgently wanted to curl up in a fetal position.
In hopes of decaffeinating my lifestyle, I moved to Pacific Beach’s older brother, Ocean Beach. Though still seaside, and only four miles south, O.B. seemed the ideal safe harbor for a P.B. recovery, while still having perks: pubs, salty air, and wave-crashing melodies. Mellow, dread-locked hippies replaced amped frat boys. While P.B. was a line and a shot, O.B. was a joint and a beer.
For the first time in my life, I lived roommate free. My digs were one of a coastal complex of six studios, and my neighbors were young professionals living out those years between Tuesday night keg stands and white picket fences. I took on an adult routine of work and the gym and healthy, semi-cooked Trader Joe’s dinners. I gave myself pats on the back for staying in on weeknights. I relished my newfound adult routine, but I also took note of the unoccupied space in my bed.
Living alone, social media was my cure for isolation. It had been four years since I’d left my Tennessee upbringing behind, and I’d been sparring with South vs. Southern California culture clash ever since. Initially, the differences were as trivial as my thighs touching. But once my country twang morphed to valley girl, and I accepted my Barbie-post-freshman-15 physique, I found myself rattled by other comparisons to my homeland.
Photos of frilly white dresses, pastel-frocked bridesmaids — and of cake-cutting, champagne-sipping, and bouquet-diving — accompanied every Facebook login. They all looked the same to me. A blushing bride, a girl I remembered from high school, with highlighted hair professionally curled to correspond with a freshly spray-tanned complexion. A bouquet composed in shades of rose, blush, and ruby. The girl was always surrounded by gushing sorority sisters and former, familiar-faced high-school cheerleaders. Soon enough, maternity shots followed, with the brides now wearing church-appropriate blouses, their eyes closed, faces pointed down at their protruding bellies. They stood curled against their husbands in an upright spoon.
My initial reaction was “Holy hell, those girls are way too young for marriage and babies.”
I’d gather with my single girlfriends and fellow So-Cal transplants, all of us raised in the in-betweens of America’s urban hubs. Through vodka-soda sips, we’d rant about the fates of our childhood opponents. To think that the popular girls we’d once idolized were now tossing their lives into the pit of suburbia. How awesome we were to be so independent.
“By the time we’re 30 and ready to settle down,” we’d scoff, “they’ll be ending their second marriages with a whimpering brat on each arm.”
My voice was often the loudest in these discussions. Maybe I was the head cheerleader of our state of denial.
The truth is, my Southern roots factored into who I was. It would always feel rude to dismiss a request to RSVP, or to show up at a social gathering uninvited. When nobody was within earshot, I still pumped up the volume on the country music station, and “y’all” never escaped my vocabulary. But while I didn’t have a single betrothed acquaintance on the West Coast, my childhood playmates’ marital sprees made had me wondering if I was meant to follow them, stepping in the same way into adulthood.
Dating felt like a healthy compromise.
I’d never really dated before. Rather than take me out to the movies or to prom prom, my high-school boyfriends usually courted me with bong hits and back seats. And since moving to San Diego, I hadn’t sampled much of the local flavor. My first two years were spent chipping paint on a destroyer and looping in and out of Navy ports. I lived on the ship, so in those days I stuck to sailors. Then I moved to P.B. and drowned myself in beach-town debauchery. I wanted casual, and casual had come as easily as my legs spread. But by the ripe old age of 22, lust, along with the rest of P.B., had lost its luster.
That summer, in addition to changing my location, I vowed to mature my relationships. By no means was I constructing blueprints for wedding bells, but I wanted dinner, good conversation, and long walks on the beach. I was ready to forfeit the game of musical chairs in exchange for routinely spooning with one familiar person.
I was certain I knew what I was getting into. Sure, San Diego was a party town. The locals were less structured, more laid back. People settled down later in life here than in rural America, so commitment was gradual. I wasn’t expecting over-the-top displays of flowers and plunges to open my car door. But I was filled with optimistic enthusiasm.