The other day, driving down Coast Highway, I detoured down a side street in Corona del Mar. Left at the diner, left again after two short blocks—I had driven that route a thousand times, back when I’d first met my husband.
He was a single father then, living in a little gray shack with his preschool daughter. I would come up the front walk to see them, and open the door to a trail of toys and socks and books and banana peels and half-eaten muffins. Inside, they’d be sprawled in front of the TV, a guy and his kid, watching baseball and old Westerns. The kitchen had these wooden cabinets and drawers that got stuck when the air was too foggy. There’s a fourplex there now. The beach shack is gone.
More enduring, at least for a time, was the tiny gourmet Chinese restaurant where the three of us once had a date. It was in downtown Laguna Beach, behind a green wooden screen door. I remember a delicious orange mai tai, lacquered black chopsticks, and a menu so pricey we stopped ordering after the appetizers. This was in the mid-’80s, the time I associate with the Talking Heads and Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” Laguna Beach was funkier then, and fragrant with mildew and saltwater and sawdust. I remember coming out into the dark with the little platinum-haired girl who would become my stepdaughter, and skipping down Coast Highway as we yelled the words to “Once in a Lifetime”:
You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile ...
We never went back to that restaurant. It closed recently after a long, long tenure. A different gourmet restaurant is there now, and the green door is gone.
Change is a constant, here more than most places. I don’t know why I’m surprised when new haunts replace old haunts. I’ve seen enough doors to know that they both open and close. The other day, I walked into a former Pizza Hut in Westminster and had some of the best pho I’ve ever eaten. The place was packed, the air thick with the smell of anise-spiced beef broth. The soup was orders of magnitude better than any chain food ever invented, but I kept seeing the Spirit of Orange County Past streaming through its kitschy side door, looking in vain for a personal pan pizza. You know you’ve lived in a place a long time when you start seeing ghosts.
Still, losing your old landscape can be a like losing an old acquaintance: Even if the memories are mixed, a world disappears. That now-bankrupt workplace where you weren’t so nice to your colleagues, that torn-down bar where you misbehaved in your 20s—once they’re gone, it might be a relief, but there’s no going back to fact-check or ask for forgiveness. You may find yourself in any number of situations, but you won’t find yourself in those places anymore.
Anyway, the other day, after taking that detour, I drove back down the coast toward home. A shopping center gleamed where once we had all gone hiking, and the old date shake shack, now owned by a chain, was clean almost to the point of looking laminated. But the sky was the same Orange County blue it had been the first time I saw it, and I thought: You may find yourself here, in this moment.
And suddenly, outside the car door, I could see the ocean stretching to the horizon, just as it did the day my husband and stepdaughter first pulled me into the surf with them, laughing as I let the water carry me down.
Illustration by Brett Affrunti
This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.