Alison Berkley: California’s pull |

Alison Berkley: California’s pull

I just spent a week in California and I can’t stop looking at my fingernails.

My 8-year-old cousin painted them in a garish purple with pink sparkles. The polish is already chipping off but it makes me feel girly again, in a very California kind of way. These twinkled claws bring the Southland home for me like a postcard would, tattered and curled up on the edges under a magnet on the fridge. A little glitter, a little glam. Dressed-up and begging for attention. Cheap.

All these things that are California scare me now, make it hard to believe that I lived there for seven whole years. Maybe that’s why I was so worried about going back, even for a week.

Packing for the trip threw me into a tailspin, trying to imagine life without socks or sleeves. I pulled my duffle bag of summer clothes out of the closet and

dumped it onto my bed, sorting through a sea of flimsy halter tops, mini skirts, board shorts, bikinis, rash guards for surfing – the girl I used to be. Had I changed that much? Yes, I have. I am no longer a size 5.

So I shopped. I bought clothes that fit instead of clothes that fit in. I crash dieted and exercised my head off. Not one gram of carbohydrates passed these lips. Come to think of it, not much passed through this digestive tract, either – that

Atkins guy must have been constipated his whole life!

I ran farther than I should have (shin splints) and rode my bike up to the top of Independence Pass (Do NOT ask me how long it took. Why are Aspenites so god damned competitive? I rode my bike 20 miles uphill. Now go away).

Even that wasn’t enough to quell the anxiety that kept me up the night before I left. I stayed up for hours trying to figure out why I was so anxious about going to a place I called home for so long. I should have asked Dad for more Xanax when I had the chance.

I landed in San Diego early enough to go straight to the beach, where the stress melted from within my bones like butter heating on the stove. My skin soaked up the moist air and thanked me with its softness. I breathed easily without the familiar pinch of dry air piercing my lungs. I swallowed the pungent aroma of jasmine and sea air like a strong drink tempered with ice and sweet juice. My eyes filled with colors I’d forgotten, so many shades of water and sky and sand and palm trees and flowers it made me dizzy. My limbs felt heavy, veins thick with oxygen.

I gorged on huge plates of food, big egg breakfasts and burritos so fat we had to hold them in both hands. I stuffed myself with all-you-can-eat sushi and authentic Thai and salads served in bowls so deep you could never get to the bottom, and never paid more than $20 for a meal. I ate vegetables exaggerated with color and flavor, so unlike the puckered, shriveled ones at City Market. I drank as much as I pleased and never got hangovers. I ran on the beach as fast as my legs would carry me without losing my breath and felt like a modern superhero.

I surfed and made sure to open my eyes under water, to remember the Earth is mostly made of sea. I paddled slowly, realizing I don’t use my arms to ski, but caught enough waves to remember why it makes me smile and giggle and squeal like I’m 5 years old all over again, the last time something so simple could be that exciting.

I got my nails and toenails done by a team of Vietnamese sisters who scrubbed and rubbed and trimmed and groomed and giggled for $12. I watched “The Matrix” on my cousin’s $30,000 home theater TV. I bought a sky-blue velour sweat suit from a fancy boutique in Corona Del Mar.

I visited my best friend from college, the one who fed me ecstasy for the first time and always ordered that second bottle of wine, the one who slept with me and all my closest friends, the guy who had “erotica” parties (read: orgies). I held his new baby girl on a white leather couch in the 1.2 million-dollar house with ocean views he shares with his beautiful wife in Del Mar. The baby fell asleep in my arms. She was the moment I never wanted to end.

I realize now that what scared me about going to California was that inevitable pull, tugging me out to sea like a riptide during a big winter swell. That place on the edge of the continent, that jumping-off point, that beauty you can see but never feel. That place I leave and always go back to, like an old lover with whom I have no future.

I returned to Aspen to find the same colors and sweet smells of a (newly sprung) spring. My roommates congregating on cheap lawn chairs in the back yard, sunburned and slightly drunk from too many cold beers, laughing easily and enjoying our tattered deck as much as any beach. This was Memorial Day, the exact day I moved into this decrepit old house a year ago, the longest I’ve kept the same address for more than six months since I was 18.

Ajax loomed over us, powerful and tall, impossible to ignore and easy to admire. It stood between me and my California sea, a thousand miles of desert between us. I had the feeling that 30 more years in this very spot could pass by without notice. I can let go of California now. My ocean of possibility is right here. My island is Aspen.

[The Princess read a few too many cheesy romance novels on the beach and can’t shake the weepy sentiment. She should be back to normal soon, but will still receive your e-mail at]

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