My O.C.: My Heart Transplant

What my 17-year-old self believed about life by the beach, and why I’m still here

“Do you think you’ll stay?”

I moved to Orange County a year ago to take my dream job as digital media director for Orange Coast, and quickly realized that Southern Californians are obsessed with that question; it’s second only to “How much is your rent?”

I came to  live by the beach, and later realized I came to escape heartbreak as well. When my mom and I first drove our rented Ford Fiesta past the 480-square-foot one-bedroom house with an orange tree on Balboa Peninsula, a block from the ocean, I thought there was no way I could afford it. And there really wasn’t, if we’re being honest. But I moved here for the beach and there the beach was. So I rented it.

It was the first of many decisions I made after moving from walkable, friendly Aspen, Colo., to sprawling, freeway-filled, self-contained Orange County. At first I thought the obsession with whether I planned to stay was evidence of Southern Californians’ self-centeredness, that no one wanted to become friends with me unless I was in it for the long haul. Then I wondered if maybe it was a twisted initiation question, like you aren’t really a Southern Californian until you fully embrace the SoCal life and commit to living here forever. 

And it is easy to love Orange County. The first morning in my curtainless house, I awoke at sunrise and grabbed my chronically late-sleeping dog for a walk on the beach. Toes in the sand, eyes still bleary, I sighed with contentment. This was why I moved here. As I neared the Newport Beach Pier, I saw motion out of the corner of my eye: Two joyous dolphins jumped just outside the wave break. I grinned, knowing this was where I was supposed to be. 

My high school history teacher recently mailed me a letter that I’d written as a 17-year-old, intended for myself 10 years later. My words were surrounded by waves and a sun: “I don’t know what you’ll be doing or who you’ll be married to, but I hope you’re living by the beach!” Well, self, I am.

 

Growing up in landlocked Austin, Texas, my fantasy life was centered around the beach. The beach is where you can be a surfer chick, tanned and toned, with wind in your hair and bare feet. The beach is where all your dreams will come true; you’ll fall in love, and life will be good. 

Sure, the beach can make those dreams come true, but there are some cold, hard realities to beach living. When you walk barefoot everywhere, your feet get black with dirt and you have to scrub them before you put on heels for your dream job. When the wind tangles your hair as you drive around in your open-air Jeep, it’s hard to brush. Before you’re tan, you’re burnt. Before you’re toned, you’re tired. And, despite your best efforts to find love here, you realize you might have left it behind in Colorado.

Before we move here from snowy places, dry places, busy places, remote places, we ask ourselves, “Can I make it?” But as we actually start to make it, we begin to wonder, “What can I make of it?”

My first few months, I made Huntington and Newport beaches my playground, filling my days with flag football in the sand, countless hours of volleyball, and biking up and down both boardwalks. I joined a gym and started dating a handsome fella I met there—my atypical introduction of “Hey, big guy, are you almost done with those weights?” apparently was just the brand of non-SoCal charm he needed. Sports teams and workout partners made me feel at home in this expansive county, and when my younger brother visiting from Austin went rock climbing with me in Pirate’s Cove, the dolphins showed off my newfound home. By then I was convinced that I could, and would, make it here.

Then, six months to the day after arriving, I tore my hamstring.

Could I still enjoy the beach without catching touchdown passes or diving for a dig? Could I make friends other than through team sports and gym camaraderie? Should I be dating someone I wasn’t yet comfortable calling to carry me home after the injury?

Being quite literally hamstrung began to shift my perception of my new paradise.

 

Now I am faced with the real O.C. question: What can I make of my life here? 

Even injured, I manage to walk on the beach every morning. As I do, the ocean roars constantly and the tide changes daily. Sometimes there are shells, sometimes there’s just seaweed. Watching the tide come in and go out, I begin to see more clearly the realities of beach life. 

The young me saw the beach as the place where she could truly become herself. The beach is where I embrace the ebb and flow of my life. It lets me play on its shores long enough to get comfortable before challenging me in new ways. The beach is indeed teaching me what teenage Lyssa saw from afar, like the surfer I haven’t yet become: I hop on the board, balance precariously, ride the wave, crash, and paddle back out. I balance my barefoot dreams with my professional ambitions, my heartbreak with personal growth, and my godforsaken freeway drive time with breezy bike commuting.

When people in this county full of transplants ask, “Do you think you’ll stay?” they’re not guarding their hearts from friendship, or testing me. They just want to know if I’m making it, how I’m making it. They’re curious. 

So now when people ask, I answer this way: I’ve found what I came for, and I’m still here. 

 

Lyssa’s Transplant Tips
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Illustration by Pushart

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue.