I'm wearing a denim skirt that shows off my legs, the one part of my body I actually like. I'm doing my best to walk gracefully in the black wedged heels I bought last summer. I've never been a fan of heels. They blister my feet, and tripping has always come naturally to me. But any man will tell you, "Chicks look hot in heels," so I rock them to the best of my ability.
It's a typical San Diego afternoon: warm, bright, and perfect. I stroll down the Garnet Avenue strip in PB. I observe the other girls. They look like clones. Bug-eyed sunglasses, short skirts, and halter tops. They're all accessorized in bulky jewelry, many with either a punkish, bright '80s look or a bohemian theme. They are all pretty.
I walk into my favorite clothing store, Mileage. Observing the girls around me, I start a conversation with a clerk.
"Have you ever noticed how we all look alike?" I ask.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, PB is weird. All the girls in PB have their own unique style, but in a way, we all look exactly alike."
Her smile widens, and her eyes get bright with amusement.
"Oh, my gosh. I never noticed, but I know exactly what you mean."
Like many San Diegans, I am not a native. I arrived from Chattanooga, Tennessee, four years ago. I was a sheltered 18-year-old with a light Southern accent. I came off my flight wowed and wide-eyed by the subtropical hills, blooming flowers, bright skies, and friendly, pretty people. Chattanooga, with a population of just under a half-million, is not completely rural. It's not made up of inbred rednecks with missing teeth. But the boys are more unkempt and lower maintenance.
The girls are behind on fashion. Dressing up, trendsetting, and matching are less important than young marriage and baby-making. Beauty was never a priority for my Southern family, who seemed to wrap all social interactions around food. When my relatives would get together, massive amounts of meat, macaroni and cheese, and desserts were cooked and devoured throughout the evening. I was an outsider in choosing to shove my finger down my throat.
In San Diego, the party girls stay thin by doing coke. Andrea (not her real name) was the wildest of them all. She was young, thin, tan, and could snort a gram in one breath. She had a magnetic, manipulative personality that drew me right in. She came off as intelligent and funny, but the more I got to know her, the more bizarre things I heard about her.
A random blonde saw her with me at a party one night. "Watch out for her," the blonde warned. "She's crazy." The random girl saw Andrea spit in a bartender's face for flirting with one of her boyfriends.
Before a night of partying, Andrea picked me up with a bottle of vodka in her lap. She drove nonchalantly while downing the vodka as if it was water. She had more than her share of pretty men, who she claimed were all in love with her. They paid for everything, supported her, and made sure she was supplied with enough coke to nourish her raging addiction.
She bragged about her boyfriends in between snorting lines. "I'm working on about seven or eight of them right now."
I never had the beauty and charisma to draw in that many, but I had my fair share. I'll never forget the line Dean used before our first kiss. We were walking by Mission Bay one night, gazing at the beautiful lights of San Diego. He looked into my eyes and said, "You want some of this?"
Dean (not his real name) was a 24-year-old musician who played guitar in a local funk-rock band. He had a singing voice that could put Stevie Wonder to shame. He was a little too short for my taste, but his pretty face made up for it. He looked like a mixture of Brad Pitt and Bradley Nowell, the deceased singer of the band Sublime. He had no car, no college degree, and slept in the living room of a Crown Point house he shared with friends. He was almost always drunk. He'd give me advice for curing my hangovers.
"Your head hurts because you didn't drink enough," he'd say.
Dean ignored his own problems.
"I know I'm going to be famous one day," he slurred.
"What makes you so sure?" I asked.
"Because I am so incredibly talented."
Dean was only incredibly talented, and not incredibly ambitious. He barely scraped by, financially. He insisted on partying until dawn, waiting to be discovered. His hopes and aspirations were the ones possessed by every musician. He dreamed of a life of fame that would probably never come. But for a few months I pathetically answered his 2:00 a.m. drunken phone calls.
After Dean, I was mysteriously drawn to pretty musicians. I can't explain what fascinates me about them. Maybe it's the way they look when they're performing, untouchable to a girl from Chattanooga.
Fresh out of Tennessee, I came to San Diego as a size 16 with chopped blond hair and darker roots. I wore T-shirts with dressy skirts, a look that was considered cute back home but tacky and mismatched in California. I knew nothing about wearing clothes to flatter my body. I'd walk on the beach feeling so intimidated. The girls looked gorgeous and fit in their bikinis. The boys were hot and shirtless, skateboarding or walking along the PB boardwalk. I knew that in order to fit in, I had to transform myself. I've always been motivated when it comes to getting the things I truly want. I deeply, desperately wanted to be pretty.
I started with the tanning bed. For a month I went every day. Instead of bronze, my skin looked crispy. I decided to lay off the tanning bed and concentrate on my body. I made jogging by the beach a daily routine. It was awkward at first. I wasn't nearly as tiny as most of the girls on the boardwalk were, but I knew that if I wanted to change my look, I had to work for it. I forced myself to get over my uneasiness.
Within a year, I slimmed down to a size 12, chubbier than I wanted. My goal was a 6. But I had a pair of D-cups to even things out. My hair grew out. I got a clue and highlighted my roots. That's when I began shopping on the Garnet strip. I began to meet the people of PB and party with them. With the endless house parties and beach kegs, making friends in PB was easy. I began to attract the opposite sex.
I hung out with a whole group of boys who could drink for several days at a time. They lived on the east side of Grand Avenue in PB, in a strip of apartments nicknamed Frat Row. Those apartments made the typical college party look like a church.
A typical morning would begin with one of the boys doing a line of coke in the bathroom, walking out feeling high and refreshed. He would announce with excitement, "Let's rage, brothers! Today is the day to rage like we've never raged before!"
Various people would be sprawled all over the apartment, hungover and dehydrated. The only true way to relieve a hangover is to drink more. Since the Silver Fox is conveniently open at 6:00 a.m., they did just that. When the other bars closed at 2:00 a.m., beer-pong tournaments would often be held on Frat Row until the Silver Fox opened the next morning.
One groggy, disoriented morning, after one of my promiscuous accomplishments, something in me changed forever.
It all began the night before, New Year's Eve, 2006. Alicia, a friend from Frat Row, invited me to a party in Oceanside. I headed north expecting to have fun and to make the holiday a night to remember. But after my sixth tequila shot, I didn't remember a thing. I woke up in a Marine barracks with a guy I vaguely recognized. At first I was confused, but it wasn't difficult to figure out what had happened.
"Is it 2007 yet?" I asked. I was still drunk, dehydrated, and dizzy.
"Yeah, it's 2007," he replied.
He wore nothing but boxers. He was in his early 20s with a beautiful pair of crystal blue eyes I was reluctant to look into. He had sandy blond hair with a short crew cut that shouted "Marine!" He was attractive but not really my type. At least, not while I'm sober.
"Did I miss it?" I said.
"Yeah, you missed it."
"How did I get here?"
Gradually, part of the night came back to me. I remembered the shots, being taken out to his truck, losing my shoes. But the rest was a blur.
I never heard from the guy after our hungover New Year's morning together. I wasn't surprised, hurt, or disappointed. I was just over it. Promiscuity had officially lost its appeal. Out of nowhere, that feeling of accomplishment faded. I was done with casual sex.
* * *
Running wasn't slimming me down as quickly as I wanted. I started doing muay Thai at the Pacific Beach Boxing Club. My trainer was 25-year-old Eddie Roa. Unlike most people I met in PB, Eddie wasn't obsessed with partying. He was obsessed with muay Thai. His class was by far the most intense workout of my life. At least an hour would be packed with constant punches, kicks, knees, and elbows. I had never been more exhausted.
The first time I saw Eddie, my first instinct was to giggle because he wore tiny muay Thai shorts rolled up his thighs. But once I felt the blunt force of his kick in the ring, his legs were nothing to laugh at. Eddie is ripped head to toe. His tattooed legs have bulging muscles from years of training. His right leg bears a large tribal Thai bull tattoo, a symbol of power. He has an eagle tattoo on his left leg, which represents pride in his Mexican heritage. He carries himself on the borderline between confidence and arrogance.
"Come on! Quit being lazy!" he yells at the group of us working out as we struggle to move and breathe.
This guy is insane, I think.
"Leileileilei," he yells.
It's this weird thing he learned to say in Thailand. I have no idea what it means, but it makes me feel rushed. It tells me, "Move! Move! Move!" no matter how much it hurts. Uppercut, right, jab, knee, kick, kick, kick!
Occasionally a hungover smoker will end up vomiting in a bucket in the corner of the boxing ring. I leave the class trembling. My hands are shaking so much I can barely hold my key steady enough to unlock my car door.
I work out constantly, setting aside everything else. I am determined to get in shape the healthy way, with the occasional Friday night social coke indulgence with the girls.
"You should relax a little," Legs tells me.
I call her that because she has long, tan, skinny legs on a size 0 frame. Telling me to relax is easy for her to say.
Legs comes from a wealthy family in Los Angeles. She is blonde and attractive. She is the typical San Diego State University party girl who doesn't have to work. Her parents pay for her rent, tuition, and shopping sprees. Unknowingly, they also fund Legs's cocaine habit.
This leaves Legs only two things to fear in life: getting pale and getting fat. She spends her days lying on the beach, baking in the sun in skimpy bikinis. She rarely eats and conveniently has a line or two of coke on hand to fight off hunger pangs.
She snorts another line off of my kitchen counter.
"Hey, let's go shopping. I want to spend the money my parents just sent me," she says excitedly.
I laugh at her.
Must be nice, I think.
So I make Eddie's muay Thai class a regular thing. It isn't long before Eddie gets me into sparring every Thursday. This is even more exhausting than his classes. I usually fight Melinda, a girl with more experience and long legs who has a habit of kicking me in the stomach.
No way could I do this hungover, I think, after a few rounds in the ring and a harsh beating to my legs and head.
When I'm fighting, I'm not allowed to pause and catch my breath. I'm forced to ignore physical exhaustion because I know the second I let my guard down, I will get a punch to the face, a kick in the head, a black eye, or a concussion. I want to get better at this. I want to be stronger. But I have to sacrifice one hobby for another.
"When you drink alcohol, you're putting toxins into your body. Even one drink can set you back weeks into your training," Eddie told me one day.
"It would really help you to stop drinking," he said.
I stopped drinking entirely for several months. But when I did start again, I thought, I'm poisoning myself with toxins. Even several days after a drunken night, I'd pay for it in the ring. With the slightest bit of alcohol, I was slower and had less endurance. I decided to reserve the booze for special occasions. My trips to bars and clubs became rare.
It's amazing how much changed when I cut down on alcohol. With no more booze, there was no more coke, no more one-night stands, no more chaotic PB adventures. My party friends faded away because I was no fun anymore. I developed a new outlook on life. When my friends did drag me to a club, I couldn't enjoy the atmosphere. Rolling my eyes, I'd observe my peers getting wasted and clumsily grinding on each other to the beat of the music.
Not only did muay Thai trigger a change in my life, but it introduced me to a new side to Pacific Beach. I was working out with people who had real jobs. They were into school and taking care of their bodies. I met people in PB who actually had a drive to better themselves. They had hobbies that didn't require snorting coke, getting wasted, and sleeping with random people. It was refreshing and encouraging. It made me realize that it was possible to enjoy life sober.
Trading vodka for boxing gloves caused my body to melt from a size 12 to a size 8. Unfortunately, my D-cups melted to B-cups as well, but for the first time in my life, my self-esteem was high. I began experimenting with my look, dyeing my hair all shades of red, then brown, then black. I started buying more clothes that suited my new-and-improved body. My personality became more bold and confident along with my physical appearance.
The prettier I got, the more normal San Diegans began to look. In fact, the prettiest people on the planet began to look almost plain. I'd see a movie with Matthew McConaughey or George Clooney and wouldn't find them the least bit appealing. I'd critique a Victoria's Secret model in a magazine and think, She's okay. Her nose needs some work. I realized that I had several male friends who were absolutely stunning. I would have dropped my pants for them in a second when I first arrived in San Diego, but for some reason I had no urges for anything beyond friendship.
I was bored with more than just casual sex. I looked at those wild, pretty girls I had partied with and realized how unaccomplished they were. The majority of them were trust-fund babies, living off their parents' money. They had no work ethic, no character, and fake personalities. They masked their reality in drugs, parties, and sex. In fact, as perfect as they seemed, they were even more insecure than I had been.
I became bored with the band guys and aspiring musicians. Sure, they were good-looking and talented, but what did it matter? They were reaching their late 20s and still waiting tables with dreams of fame and living an artistic lifestyle of poverty.
Somewhere along the path to physical transformation, I started to see potential in everyone. I'd look at someone and think, If she changed her hair, got a facelift, and worked out, she'd be pretty. Or, If he only got his teeth fixed and cut his hair, he'd look great. Beauty isn't special. It's attainable for everyone. Now, when I go to a bar in Pacific Beach, I watch all the girls with their heavy makeup and pushup bras and realize that they are nothing special. I'm annoyed when a good-looking man brushes past my friends, thinking he has the right to run his hands all over our backs in the process. I no longer get that rush when I'm talking to a good-looking guy who says, "I'm in a band" or "I do some modeling." I don't care.
San Diegans forget how beautiful Grand Avenue in Pacific Beach is — the drive toward the ocean with palm trees lining the streets. They forget how incredible the view is from Mount Soledad at night when you can see lights all the way to Mexico.
Perhaps San Diego has overdosed on perfection. In all my struggles and all my work to blend in with the beautiful people, I have found that pretty is boring.