Returning to San Marino

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*For more information on the prompt that inspired this piece, visit here*

* Names have been changed

The city of San Marino, California is a utopia of single-family, multimillion-dollar residences; every minutia of human activity is watched, regulated, and restricted by a council that prides itself in minimizing so-called “nuisance.”  Sterile and synthetic, it is structured on the basis of conformity and repression. Despite all of this, the very thought of it used to disarm me, leaving me in utter disarray.

Last June, my mom wanted to go to a little cafe in San Marino for my dad’s birthday brunch. As we got onto the 118 East, I wondered if my mother realized how this would make me feel—if she recognized how each street name and corner shop of that city was a trigger for me. Nostalgia. Yearning. Pain. Sadness. Hatred. Awkwardness. My parents seemed completely unaware of the emotional chaos erupting within me as we got off of the freeway, easing onto the same ‘Streets, ‘Avenues, and ‘Roads of Spanish-style mini mansions that had set the stage for my first love, just a couple of years ago.

I didn’t think that I would ever come back here. I mean, I suppose that I expected this to happen at some point. Perhaps I’d return when the passage of time finally buried my memories, when I would have to squint my eyes and search deep into my past to retrieve the name of that boy who broke my heart over the phone. Twice. But I still had a vivid portrait of him in my memory, the big-eyed, lanky writer-boy with what some had called “a mind of Einstein and a heart of Shakespeare.”

His family didn’t live here anymore; they’d moved to Oregon at the tail end of our relationship. Adam, the writer-boy, studied some sort of make-your-own-major 3,000 miles east at a liberal arts college with a thriving weed culture and a dwindling Greek life. This is my home, he had written to me in a letter after we’d broken up for the first time. More than Los Angeles, San Marino, and even Northridge. Northridge. My home. Me.

San Marino was just one of the many things that he’d left behind.

And I thought that I had left it behind, too.

My parents and I followed the line of BMWs and Audis, passing by what Adam had coined the “James Blake Fountain”—it may seem like it’s broken but it’s supposed to be that way, he’d said.  And the Fair Oaks Soda Fountain, a diner reminiscent of the 50s—Adam would always order fries and a chocolate milkshake, which would swish back and forth in his mouth as he vented about his mother’s misunderstanding of his anarchist ideals.

Adam had a strong disdain for San Marino, its strict regulations and lack of diversity, the snobbery that paved the walkways and gleamed in every USC alumni license plate. He did whatever he could to not be San Marino. He blasted gangsta rap from the speakers of his PT Cruiser, speaking of the black struggle as if he’d experienced it. He smoked “medical” marijuana on the bench in front of his house, as if begging to get caught. But he was a mess of contradictions—he thrift shopped to boycott big corporations while checking Reddit on his brand-new iPhone.

Despite all of its peculiarities, I used to love San Marino. I loved the open-windowed drive from the freeway exit to his driveway. I loved the walk from his house to Nona’s Pizzeria. I loved the warm and happy owner of Julienne’s. I loved the calm, the quiet, the greenness of the streets as we took his dog around the block. What was once Adam’s world eventually became our world.

When Adam left San Marino and embraced his university, I think that I got lost somewhere in between. There was no longer a place for me, for us, in his life. We did not have anywhere to call ours. We only had the abstract. Phone static. Text boxes. Memories.

And that’s how I remembered him after we broke up—in the abstract. From a distance. Letters, mix CDs, and photographs were the most concrete remnants of our relationship that I had to hold onto. But there was something so transitory about them: they were so time-sensitive, tied down to specific dates that were long gone.

Driving around San Marino with my parents that July morning was different than listening to old playlists and flipping through photographs. Places don’t remain frozen in time in the same way; they have a life of their own, carrying on with their people. And they move on when people leave. As we approached Julienne’s, I realized that the city didn’t seem to notice Adam’s absence. Or mine, for that matter. It hadn’t dramatically changed; that would be very unlike San Marino. But I think it was that very lack of transformation that stood out to me. Adam did not need to be present in order for this place to be San Marino. It was no longer Adam’s San Marino or our San Marino. It was just…San Marino.

The emotional chaos that I had felt on the freeway gradually subsided until I came to a balance. A calm. As my eyes glossed over the landmarks of my first love story, I remembered feelings—of love, of hope, of betrayal, of loss—but I did not quite feel them anymore. Those feelings no longer disarmed me, disabled me, destroyed me. Instead, they now existed as a part of my story, my past, distant enough to allow me to recognize and develop a new relationship with this place, San Marino–one that was wholly mine.

I, like this city, had moved on.

Post submitted by JoAnna

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