Open Water

This piece is part of Waterfronts, a series of personal essays that engage with the waterways of New York and/or Los Angeles, presented in collaboration with Underwater New York.

I grew up in Orange County, California, twenty-five minutes from the Pacific Ocean and some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, but as a teenager, it was swimming pools that preoccupied me. Any old person could go to the beach, but not everybody had a swimming pool, and the people who did were important. And if you were lucky enough to be invited poolside, so were you.

It meant a lot to live in a house with a pool. A pool meant people would always want to come over and you got to decide who got in and who stayed out. A pool meant not only could you get people to come to your house, you could also get them to take off their clothes. And you didn’t even need to bother yourself with the pesky task of entertaining your guests; the pool was its own entertainment. Above all, having a pool meant money, meant your family was smarter, luckier, or just plain better than the rest of us. And having a pool often came hand-in-hand with the ultimate Orange Countian status symbol: the gated community. Being behind the gates, next to or in a pool meant you were somewhere that most people couldn’t be. It meant you were special.

In stark contrast to the luxurious communities I coveted, my parent’s home was in “The Canyons,” a highly anomalous part of Orange County made up of three small canyons protected from development by land grants and inhabited by an eccentric crowd of nature lovers, horse lovers, and conservationists. My parents’ ranch-style house was modest with a wrap-around deck and huge garden, no television, no perfunctory sitting room or formal dining room, no extra fridge in the garage to be stocked with snacks and bottled water, and certainly no pool. My parents prized the natural beauty of the canyons above any other aspect of their home or property; a value system I thoroughly rejected. What good did a backdrop of some mountains do for my social standing? I couldn’t invite people to come over to look at the hills. If I had a house with a pool, I wouldn’t be embarrassed to invite people over, I assured myself as I lay awake at night fantasizing how drastically my lot in life would improve if my family would only start subscribing to the OC dream. I was certain that with the right house, behind the right gates, with the right pool, people would finally see me for who I was really meant to be: popular, powerful, rich. Elite. And I would start seeing myself that way, too.

For all the time I spent obsessing about how to be invited to the right pool, I spent more time at the beach than I did poolside, since my grandmother lived in Newport Beach. Newport is a big, popular public beach, displaying a diverse intersection of native culture, wildly diverse if you account for it being in Orange County: tattooed rockabilly twenty-somethings who live in the local rentals, wealthy, plastic-surgery-preserved older couples who live on the beach front property, Mexican families who swim fully clothed as if they hadn’t planned on going in but just couldn’t resist, dogged beach combers with metal detectors who will diverge from their path for no man, parents in heated sunscreen negotiations with young kids, and, of course, your heart’s content of surfers. The sand is crowded with blankets and bodies, the wind crowded with cries from volleyball players and horns from bicyclists as they nearly collide with the skateboarders, and the air is crowded with the smell of salt water and salty foods, sunscreen and barbeque. But I was always distracted at the beach by my social neuroticism, trying to figure out how—if at all—cool, going to the beach was, and ultimately deciding that the beach could not be cool whatsoever if this many people were allowed to go. As I had learned from the swimming pools and the gates, places were only as cool as the percentage of people who weren’t allowed in.

At eighteen years old I headed to Princeton for college. I had long prayed to be part of a homogeneous elite; oh how my wish had been granted. Students at Princeton looked the same; their skin was the same northeastern shade of pale, they wore the same business casual attire, carried the same beat up LL Bean backpacks with the same sense of irony. They spoke of the same boarding schools and vacation locales. We had all taken the same aptitude tests and gotten the same grades, but I didn’t feel special, chosen, or powerful. And as for feeling rich, I was so pitifully behind the curve that I had only been praying about having one nice house; I wasn’t even aware that I should have been asking for three or four.

Though I missed my friends, I didn’t miss their swimming pools or track houses or gates. When I wished I could go back, I didn’t wish to transport myself to a pool so clean the grout between the tiles sparkled as white as teeth in toothpaste ads, in the backyard of a house so indistinguishable from its neighbors that I routinely resorted to playing eeny meeny miny mo with the front doors before knocking when visiting my best friend. When I desperately wanted to talk to someone from home, it wasn’t to give a gatekeeper my name, or tell them that I was on the permanent guest list. Living that life had been my dream, but now it didn’t feel anything like home.

What I did dream about, and talk about, and remember in details I hadn’t been aware I was absorbing at the time, except to scrutinize degrees of lameness, was the beach. The Fun Zone with its famous frozen bananas and skee ball and Ferris wheel, the Asian families in long sleeves and under umbrellas, school children on field trips, the fake boobs, the leathery skin, the surfers, the fishermen, the docks, the crab restaurants, the rollerblades, the volleyball players, the sand castles. Remembering Newport brought me back home because it was filled with all the different people who also called Orange County home.

I had long rejected my parents’ philosophy that natural beauty should be available to everyone and that free things could have great value. In my mind, belonging to everyone meant belonging to nobody. If nobody owned it, then how could it have value? Owning things that other people didn’t was how the world knew we were special. But at some point during my homesick meditation I realized that what makes Newport magic is that despite its desirability, it doesn’t have any gates, your name doesn’t need to be on any list, and there aren’t any membership dues. Along with the waves and sand and the feeling of forever that looking out at sea inspires, the culture that its open door policy creates makes the beach priceless in a way the most extravagant pool never can be.

Julie Sarkissian is the author of Dear Lucy, published in 2013 by Simon and Schuster. Other writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, and The Huffington Post. She graduated from Princeton University and has an MFA from The New School. A native of Orange County, California, she currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband.