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California Girls

August 18, 2011 | by

Joan Didion. Illustration by Julia Felsenthal.

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. Read More »

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