Anna scooped me up from the airport in her new Prius. It was charcoal grey with black rims and tinted out windows, about as cool as a Prius can be. When I asked her about her day she shrugged her shoulders at her office job (environmental compliance) whose culture she described as “square”. We merged onto the highway and joined the home-bound workforce horde.
“Know what’s crazy?” She said, as we slid over into the carpool lane. “Everyone is by themselves.”
I looked out of my window and it was true; every car, truck, and SUV was piloted by a solo commuter. Having just surpassed the hump day, they were battling traffic and anxious to get home.
“More people live in Orange County than in all of Washington State,” Anna continued as the highway cut through the sleek, anonymous glass office buildings of Irvine.
It was fully dark by the time we arrived at Anna’s apartment complex, which she shared with her boyfriend, Gene, and her friend Cara. The building was indeed, complex: The property was a labyrinth of two-story beige buildings, seemingly situated without any sort of grid with which someone could intuitively find their way around.
Anna led me up the stairs, put the key in the door, and began to open it. Immediately a dog muzzle appeared, barking, trying to shove its way through the crack.
“SOL!” We saw a hand grab the dog’s collar. Anna opened the door all the way. Gene appeared in the hallway cradling a gorgeous house cat. Cara stood off to the side, restraining her pup.
“dun dun DUN!” sung Gene, like he was announcing royalty. He deposited the cat in my arms.
“What’s his name?”
Zulu was leopard-like, with brown with black spots.
“What is he?”
“He’s a savannah cat.”
“Where’d you get him?”
“From a breeder in L.A.,” said Anna. “He was expensive,” she admitted. He was heavy in my arms.
“How much does he weigh?”
“Eighteen pounds.” I gave him a few strokes. His fur was soft enough to bring out the Cruella De Ville in anyone. Plus he was completely tolerant of me, a stranger, holding him. I decided he was a great cat.
Despite the looming workday, my hosts honored my arrival. We all stayed up until midnight sipping Coors Banquet in the complex’s hot tub. I crashed on the couch, wondering how I was going to spend the next two days home alone while my friends were at their jobs.
I tried to get up with Anna and Gene at seven the next morning. I even fixed myself a nice breakfast of sausage, onions, and peppers on a bed of rice with an egg on top, a meal scrounged from the groceries I had picked up during our beer run the night before. I drank a cup of black tea, but the caffeine was not enough to quell my desire for more sleep. In lieu of the couch I snuck into Anna and Gene’s now vacant room and drifted off listening to Louis C.K.’s controversial new comedy set, which was super dark and made me laugh a lot.
I awoke with the cat at my feet. Then I went into Cara’s room and let Sol out of his crate. He sprinted laps around the apartment while I refilled his water bowl. Being a border collie mixed with an Australian shepherd, he’s an intelligent dog with a ton of energy. Here in his puppy stages, he was a spaz, constantly in motion, often gnawing a bone or coercing someone into playing tug of war with one of his many gutted stuffed animals. As a result, the apartment was consistently littered with white cotton fluff.
Outside it looked grey. I checked my phone for the weather. Rain was forecasted. Still, I wasn’t going to lounge around the apartment all day so I put on running clothes and laced up my sneakers, weaving Anna’s pink and white kitten themed key into the laces.
After fussing for a bit with Sol’s harness, I went outside and began jogging in what I assumed was the direction of the beach. Sol and I navigated the beige apartment buildings past the hot tub and down some stairs, and then across a golf course, through a tunnel and down a steep hill to the beach. Signs of life were sparse; The clouds seemed to have deterred all but the most dedicated dog walkers.
Once within view of the ocean I read a sign: NO DOGS ALLOWED ON BEACH. So we ran back up the hill and turned north along a bike path. Sol behaved himself, needing only slight encouragement from me to stay on my right side. He even resisted the urge to bark at the other dogs, seldom though they were on this overcast day. The golf course adjacent to the bike path was entirely vacant and flooded from the rain.
Sol and I kept a steady pace with each other, already natural running partners. Though the pavement was hard on my feet and knees and I assumed Sol felt the same. We slowed to a walk. A severely tanned, curly haired blonde appeared in front of me, walking her own Australian Shepherd. She was barefoot and her dog was off-leash. The dogs sniffed each other, forcing me to answer the inevitable dog-owner questions like “how old?” and “what breed?” I played along and pretended Sol was my dog. We wrapped up the conversation with, “he’s a handful!” “Mine too!” And suddenly I was a dog owner living in the O.C., free to jog on a Thursday afternoon.
Back at the apartment, Sol was wound up. I tried to coax him into his crate with a cat treat (a pro tip from Anna) but he remained stubborn. Finally, several treats later, I was able to lock him away so I could shower without worrying about the sanctity of the apartment.
It was Cara’s birthday so the whole gang went out to a Mexican restaurant. The girls and I had margaritas while Gene and Cara’s boyfriend, Coleman, drank Tecate. I chowed eagerly through a wet burrito.
The next day was more of the same. My feet and knees hurt from pounding the pavement the day before, so I decided to leave poor Sol in his kennel so I could jog on the NO DOGS ALLOWED beach.
While I was fixing breakfast, Coleman came into the kitchen. We chatted while he loaded “snaps” (small weed bowls with a sprinkling of tobacco) in his giant bong he had brought from his house. He ripped through the hits like a pro and blew them out the window. I took a hit myself and before I knew it I was running on the glittering sand of Salt Creek Beach.
The sun had made a triumphant return. I stashed my shirt and shoes in a bush so I could jog unencumbered. Then I did strides just to see how fast I could run. I was seeking the pure pleasure of speed, like a child sprinting on the playground. Flecks of seawater sprayed behind me like a jet ski. I remembered sprinting advice from my middle school track coach: “Never go 100%, because your muscles will tighten up and work against each other.” So I pushed myself to what I gaged was about 90%. So pleasurable were these strides that I thought if I lived by a beach I would seriously increase my speed.
When I got out of the shower Cara had returned from her job at the dental office. She was accompanied by a newly released Sol. He tore around the apartment, relishing his freedom. Cara told me that her car wasn’t starting so we went downstairs to the parking lot to investigate. Her massive Honda Element was blocking other cars in the lot. She got in the driver’s seat, put it in neutral, and I pushed. As I struggled to get the enormous SUV rolling, a neighbor carrying a baby came and offered his free hand to help me. Together we moved the car into a free spot, with him cradling the baby in one arm the whole time we were pushing.
Adding to the chaos, the apartment fridge had mysteriously stopped working. Cara and I shoved the more perishable items into a small cooler and texted Anna to pick up ice on the way home.
“Fuckin’ 25,” joked Cara, deciding her new age was unlucky. I rolled her a spliff (needing the practice) and we sparked it on the porch with the dog at our feet.
It was Friday night and we’d be damned if we didn’t celebrate Cara’s birthday properly. Once everyone had returned form work, I was elected to drive Anna’s Prius to Newport Beach, a journey just over 20 miles. I zoomed the go-kart like vehicle up the PCH while the rest of the gang began the process of forgetting their work-week with loud music and beer.
“This is like driving a toaster!” I exclaimed, while my passengers cracked their beers.
We pre-funked at Coleman’s house, taking shots of Crown Royal while we watched a grey pit bull lose a play fight to a mutt with a pointy muzzle.
“She doesn’t fuck around,” said the mutt’s Brazilian owner, one of Coleman’s roommates. “She’s from Mexico.”
The pre-funk devolved into strange antics, culminating with Cara being put mostly in the freezer by her cross-faded boyfriend.
My friends had warned me about “The Bungalow” being a real crowded shit-show of a bar but with a belly full of whiskey I felt as prepared as I’d ever be. I was comfortably buzzed when we arrived. The now cocktail bar was previously a beachfront mansion. This created an atmosphere like being at a rich kid’s blowout high school party. All that was missing were family pictures on the walls. Instead they were adorned with mirrors and surfing pictures, along with random Americana, like portraits of Elvis and Marylin Monroe. Everyone there appeared to be in their twenties, everyone except for the odd silver-haired guy dressed in fine clothing, presumably propositioning a sugar-daddy sort of arrangement for the tipsy young Cali girls, of which there were many.
Our Northwest girls went to get us drinks. Gene and I stood around stupidly until they got back. When Anna handed us our gin and tonics, her face was flat. Apparently she had gotten in a verbal tussle with a posse of tall blondes. The point of contention was who was first in line to the bar. The altercation hadn’t escalated to blows, but the look on Anna’s face suggested she wished it had.
Gene guided us through the thick crowd onto the enormous patio which was covered by a white plastic tent. The buzz of excited chatter was louder than the music. We formed a small circle and talked and looked around.
The loud and unappealing environment turned our attention to our drinks, which we quickly finished. We waded our way back toward the bar. I handed Anna my credit card to get us another round. Somehow I found myself locked in by people and couches. I just stood there, awkwardly, taking in the young adult population of So-Cal. Guys wore backwards hats and flannels over t-shirts advertising surf brands. Girls were heavily made up and wore black leather jackets.
I noticed a redheaded girl looking at me, and when I caught her eye she scoffed. I must’ve looked pathetic, or at least out of place, standing around not talking to anyone. It turns out she was laughing at me standing in between the couches, and we proceeded to chat. I was leaning over the couch and once it seemed our conversation would continue I stepped over it. A bouncer appeared immediately to inform me not to step on the furniture.
Once he left us alone I told her I was a little overwhelmed by all this stimulation. The packed, meat-market vibe was too much for my mild-mannered persona.
“How old are you?” She asked.
“See, I’m 28. I used to be shy, like you. Then I went traveling by myself and had to get over it. Otherwise I’d never meet anyone.”
“I’m flying to Shanghai in six days,” I told her.
“Good! But you should get some practice,” she said, looking around the bar. “Pick four people who you think look interesting and talk to them. You’re cute, so it’ll be easy.”
“I don’t know. It seems forced. What would we talk about?”
“I don’t know, whatever you want!”
But I didn’t participate in her challenge and instead rejoined my crew out on the giant patio. I was on my level at that point and started dancing in a spot not really relegated for dancing. Anna and Cara joined in.
On the walk back to Colemans’s house, Anna and I wound up in a competitive game of tag. At one point she chased me down the sidewalk, truly sprinting, and to avoid her I turned quickly down a bark embankment. She followed and, as I’d sort of hoped, slipped and landed hard on her backside. She got up, laughing, but the game was over.
Once back at Coleman’s, our host heated up some frozen tater-tots. While the oven pre-heated, he polished off the Crown Royal. We ate the tots while waiting for an Uber to take us all the way back to Dana Point.
Once inside her apartment, Anna went into her bedroom and flopped onto the bed. The light was on and she was fully clothed, but she was out.
Gene and I stayed up until four making dank drunken grilled cheeses. Finally we were able to really catch up as friends, having thawed out that which can ice over when you go a long time without seeing someone. Cara had stayed behind at her boyfriend’s, so her bed was free. I lay down on it and fell asleep with my mind fussing over the inevitable lethargy I’d be dealing with the next day.
But the next day was so good that I hardly had time to think about my hangover. Coleman gave us surf lessons on Newport Beach. He pushed us into the rookie-sized swells and told us when to stand up, so we were able to ride waves until the sun went down. We finished the day with a six-pack back at Coleman’s surf shop, and then we all played cards back at the apartment.
When it came time to catch my plane the next morning, I thanked and hugged my hosts and they said things like, “have fun in Thailand”. I love having good friends who are also good at having fun.