I'm wearing a denim skirt that shows off my legs, the one part of my body I actually like. I'm doing my best to walk gracefully in the black wedged heels I bought last summer. I've never been a fan of heels. They blister my feet, and tripping has always come naturally to me. But any man will tell you, "Chicks look hot in heels," so I rock them to the best of my ability.
It's a typical San Diego afternoon: warm, bright, and perfect. I stroll down the Garnet Avenue strip in PB. I observe the other girls. They look like clones. Bug-eyed sunglasses, short skirts, and halter tops. They're all accessorized in bulky jewelry, many with either a punkish, bright '80s look or a bohemian theme. They are all pretty.
I walk into my favorite clothing store, Mileage. Observing the girls around me, I start a conversation with a clerk.
"Have you ever noticed how we all look alike?" I ask.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, PB is weird. All the girls in PB have their own unique style, but in a way, we all look exactly alike."
Her smile widens, and her eyes get bright with amusement.
"Oh, my gosh. I never noticed, but I know exactly what you mean."
Like many San Diegans, I am not a native. I arrived from Chattanooga, Tennessee, four years ago. I was a sheltered 18-year-old with a light Southern accent. I came off my flight wowed and wide-eyed by the subtropical hills, blooming flowers, bright skies, and friendly, pretty people. Chattanooga, with a population of just under a half-million, is not completely rural. It's not made up of inbred rednecks with missing teeth. But the boys are more unkempt and lower maintenance.
The girls are behind on fashion. Dressing up, trendsetting, and matching are less important than young marriage and baby-making. Beauty was never a priority for my Southern family, who seemed to wrap all social interactions around food. When my relatives would get together, massive amounts of meat, macaroni and cheese, and desserts were cooked and devoured throughout the evening. I was an outsider in choosing to shove my finger down my throat.
In San Diego, the party girls stay thin by doing coke. Andrea (not her real name) was the wildest of them all. She was young, thin, tan, and could snort a gram in one breath. She had a magnetic, manipulative personality that drew me right in. She came off as intelligent and funny, but the more I got to know her, the more bizarre things I heard about her.
A random blonde saw her with me at a party one night. "Watch out for her," the blonde warned. "She's crazy." The random girl saw Andrea spit in a bartender's face for flirting with one of her boyfriends.
Before a night of partying, Andrea picked me up with a bottle of vodka in her lap. She drove nonchalantly while downing the vodka as if it was water. She had more than her share of pretty men, who she claimed were all in love with her. They paid for everything, supported her, and made sure she was supplied with enough coke to nourish her raging addiction.
She bragged about her boyfriends in between snorting lines. "I'm working on about seven or eight of them right now."
I never had the beauty and charisma to draw in that many, but I had my fair share. I'll never forget the line Dean used before our first kiss. We were walking by Mission Bay one night, gazing at the beautiful lights of San Diego. He looked into my eyes and said, "You want some of this?"
Dean (not his real name) was a 24-year-old musician who played guitar in a local funk-rock band. He had a singing voice that could put Stevie Wonder to shame. He was a little too short for my taste, but his pretty face made up for it. He looked like a mixture of Brad Pitt and Bradley Nowell, the deceased singer of the band Sublime. He had no car, no college degree, and slept in the living room of a Crown Point house he shared with friends. He was almost always drunk. He'd give me advice for curing my hangovers.
"Your head hurts because you didn't drink enough," he'd say.
Dean ignored his own problems.
"I know I'm going to be famous one day," he slurred.
"What makes you so sure?" I asked.
"Because I am so incredibly talented."
Dean was only incredibly talented, and not incredibly ambitious. He barely scraped by, financially. He insisted on partying until dawn, waiting to be discovered. His hopes and aspirations were the ones possessed by every musician. He dreamed of a life of fame that would probably never come. But for a few months I pathetically answered his 2:00 a.m. drunken phone calls.
After Dean, I was mysteriously drawn to pretty musicians. I can't explain what fascinates me about them. Maybe it's the way they look when they're performing, untouchable to a girl from Chattanooga.
Fresh out of Tennessee, I came to San Diego as a size 16 with chopped blond hair and darker roots. I wore T-shirts with dressy skirts, a look that was considered cute back home but tacky and mismatched in California. I knew nothing about wearing clothes to flatter my body. I'd walk on the beach feeling so intimidated. The girls looked gorgeous and fit in their bikinis. The boys were hot and shirtless, skateboarding or walking along the PB boardwalk. I knew that in order to fit in, I had to transform myself. I've always been motivated when it comes to getting the things I truly want. I deeply, desperately wanted to be pretty.
I started with the tanning bed. For a month I went every day. Instead of bronze, my skin looked crispy. I decided to lay off the tanning bed and concentrate on my body. I made jogging by the beach a daily routine. It was awkward at first. I wasn't nearly as tiny as most of the girls on the boardwalk were, but I knew that if I wanted to change my look, I had to work for it. I forced myself to get over my uneasiness.