Opinion: A summer in Laguna

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By Tatumn Mika

Photo courtesy of Tatumn Mika.

Someone once told me that the mountains are good for the mind, while the ocean is good for the soul. Growing up in Colorado amidst the snow-capped rockies, the ocean felt worlds away. Instead of palm trees and cabanas, we had cedar cabins and evergreens. Our waves were cascades of white, thundering down mountains and melting into the freshwater streams below; Columbines growing wild along the sides. Colorado’s version of white sand beaches were freshly groomed ski slopes, and dry, frosty air that whipped our faces as we rode the chairlifts above.

As a kid with parents who were both well-traveled and exceptionally generous, I was given opportunities to explore the world from a very young age. We took vacations to tropical paradise; visiting the beaches of Mexico, Hawaii, Florida, even Jamaica. My siblings and I would argue relentlessly over who got the window seat on the airplane, for the rare chance to press our faces up against the glass, and watch wide-eyed as we descended over the ocean. A blue so vibrant it was as if a paint bucket had spilled across the earth.

Since the ocean was a novelty to us Colorado kids, my brothers and I spent the majority of our vacations in the water. We’d race across the beach, boogie boards in tow, competing to see who would reach the ocean first, giggling until the iciness of the water took the breath from our lungs. Our imagination ran wild, transforming us into hungry sharks circling our prey. Greedy pirates looking for lost treasure. Fearless mermaid warriors guarding our sandcastle cities. Only breaking character long enough to reapply sunscreen to our pink cheeks. We’d return to Colorado, our skin tanned in a way that only happens underneath a tropical sun, and our pockets full of sand dollars & seashells. Souvenirs, and proof, of our time by the sea.

Perhaps it was getting to experience the world as a child; tasting the thrills of travel from a young age. Or maybe it was hearing my mom’s voice repetitively telling me over the years, “It’s a big world out there, Tatumn.” Her passion for travel runs deep, as if faraway places and airline tickets were written into the very strands of her DNA. Regardless, as I got older, with my treasure-looting days long behind me, I grew curious about life beyond Colorado. The mountains that have forever been my safe haven, their silhouettes like armor shielding me from the unknown, suddenly seemed like they were closing in around me. There’s more out there, I knew, and it felt like it was waiting for me.

A little over a year and a half ago, my family suffered the unexpected loss of my younger brother, Cole. I have yet to find the words to describe the pain that fell upon us during this time. In fact, I am convinced there are none. A piece of our family, a piece of me, was gone. The life I knew was suddenly swept out from underneath me, and I plummeted into the depths of utter heartbreak. Grief was barreling through me at full force, leaving nothing but a shell of myself in its wake. I was desperate for solitude. For some breathing room. For space to just, be.

Time lost its meaning for a while, with days and weeks blurring pointlessly together. The pull I felt to leave Colorado became something I no longer wanted to do, but instead something I needed to do. After a few months, though it felt like years, I found myself packing my bags and heading to the West Coast. With the “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign in my rearview mirror and a trunk full of suitcases, I was en route to someplace else; someplace new. It’s not lost on me that perhaps I was racing my sadness across the country, and seeing who won. An attempt to escape the inescapable. But nonetheless, with Cole heavy on my mind and in heart, I was embarking on my new adventure.

Here are a few things I’ll never forget about arriving in Laguna Beach, California:

The smell of jasmine floating through the open windows of my car as I drove through the winding canyon road and into the sleepy little beach town. Rolling hills of green, peppered with morning glories & california poppies, on either side of me. I can still picture my dog, Goose, standing in the passenger seat: eyes closed, tongue out, and ears flying backwards as the salty, coastal breeze ran through his fur.

Photo courtesy of Tatumn Mika.

Unlocking the front gate and stepping onto my patio for the first time. The flower bushes that hung along the sides of the fence, swaying in the gentle wind as if they were waving hello. The way the sun peeked through the branches of the lemon tree, casting lazy afternoon shadows across the navy blue couch cushions. Sunshine spilling across the small one bedroom unit like golden honey. A warm welcome into my sojourn summer home.

Listening to the crashing of waves through my window that first night, remembering how we’d frolic in the tide as kids, and all of our marvelous salt water escapades. Thinking about how much I missed the sound of the open water, of my brother’s laugh. Wondering if he would be proud of me and of this small, fleeting adventure I found myself on. The ocean, a true antithesis to the mountains, was confirmation that I had officially done it.

That I had found myself in a place I had never before been. With the soothing rhythm of the waves as background noise to my thoughts, I closed my eyes and whispered, “Cheers buddy, we did it” into the cool, California night sky.

It was as if a seed had been planted in my heart that first day, and the roots had begun to take hold. Looking back now, it’s easy to see how quickly that seed blossomed.

I met my neighbors a few days after I arrived, when we met for a spontaneous happy hour on my patio. A recurring event, I would come to find out, and one that I began to eagerly look forward to.

Photo courtesy of Tatumn Mika.

Carol, the artist from Irving, sought refuge in the Laguna hills while recovering from an intensive surgery but more considerably, grieving the loss of a loved one. The apartment just above mine, with a balcony overlooking the ocean, was a place to heal both her body and her heart. With generosity & kindness woven into her very bones, she was the picture of pure elegance, even in grief. Afternoons with Carol seamlessly blended into talking late into the night, charcuterie and wine as the precursor to conversations beneath the stars. Some kind of merlot magic, perhaps. She was both a stranger and what felt like a lifelong friend, and losing track of time with her was remarkably easy. She taught me that the brushstrokes of life are colorful, messy, tragic, and beautiful. That the most arduous and painful times tend to bring some of the greatest ones, and that even when the sun stops shining, flowers can still bloom.

Cait, in the apartment directly next to mine, was a true wonder. A woman whose heart belongs behind the bar at a local café in Spain, or within the fields of a Tuscan vineyard. The kind of person who knocks on a stranger’s door, a bottle of wine and two glasses in hand, and says, “Care for a drink?” A free spirit like I’ve never known, Cait looks at life and sees the romance in it. Where most simply see words on a page, Cait sees poetry. When the water is too cold for most to brave it, Cait throws on a wetsuit and grabs her snorkel gear. When others open their umbrellas to shield the rain, Cait dances in it. I often wonder how magnificent it must be, to see the world through Cait’s eyes. She might very well be strolling the streets of Paris right now, arm in arm with a handsome French actor, or perhaps she is winning over a group of investors in her pitch to sell her private Gin brand. Whichever adventure she finds herself on now, I know that she’s living in true Cait fashion: gracefully & freely.

I had never before felt that. The feeling of being at home, even though I was technically 1,000 miles away from it. The certainty that I was meant to be here, in this moment, sitting under the shade of a lemon tree alongside these two strong-willed women sharing stories over a bottle of rosé. Of all the people in the world who could have booked the Airbnb. Of all of the days and months of the year that we easily could have missed one another. But by some small happenstance we all ended up here, together. What a gift.

That summer in Laguna was pure magic. Goose and I spent our days wandering the town and the neighborhoods scattered within it. With each house we passed there was a garden that was more bright and dazzling than the last; with hot pink roses, blue hydrangeas, and lavender peonies creating explosions of color in front lawns. We took sunset walks on the beach, little paw prints trailing behind us in the wet sand. We’d stop occasionally to watch surfers brave the swells while dolphins jumped and splashed behind them. Gray, drizzly mornings were followed by flush & radiant evenings, both equally enchanting in their own way. The humidity, a friend to my skin but a ruthless enemy to my hair, settled in with a mind of its own, forcing me to relent and let my blonde strands run wild. A frustrating, yet undeniable little freedom.

It was a summer full of spicy margaritas and pink bubbly wine, each sip like tiny fireworks in my mouth. It was windows-down driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, “Tequila Sunrise” on the radio. It was the bouquets of flowers that Carol would leave sitting on my patio table, waiting for me when I came home. It was fresh ahi tuna, raspberry sorbet, and oysters by the dozen. Books for breakfast and sunsets for dessert.

But it was also grief as I had never before felt; so overwhelming at times that it threatened to consume me. I balled up my sadness and threw it at Laguna like a first pitch, and it let me. I wrote and I cried and I went for walks, only to come home and cry some more. I screamed at a god that I don’t believe in, begging for a chance to go back in time; even if for just a moment. My heart seemed to break in tandem with the tide: crashing & continuous. Looking back now, I can see what I wasn’t able to at the time. I understand now how critical it was for me to feel that way, even as tremendously difficult as it was. But most of all, how important it was for me to do it alone.

On a Sunday afternoon in early June, the foggy, thick marine layer that had been resting on top of Southern California had dissipated. I took the opportunity to lace up my running shoes and soak up the sunshine. Running southbound, I welcomed the smooth sea level air into my lungs and let the sun kiss my skin. I found a pathway that led to intersecting trails, chose one at random and continued on. I suddenly found myself at the top of a hill that overlooked the water below. A view that I imagine some people attempt to paint, but ultimately find it impossible to recreate. The way the vastness of the ocean spread to no end was breathtaking. The deep blue water in such stark contrast to the yellow dandelions that blanketed the cliffs above. Sunlight glinted against the surface of the water like a million tiny crystals were dancing atop it.

It is so important, so grounding, I think, to be reminded of how minuscule we are in the expanse of this existence. It’s amazing how quickly the trivial inconveniences of daily life become insignificant when compared to the grandness of the ocean at sunset. I felt especially close to my brother at that moment. I somehow knew, deep in my bones, that he was there looking out at the ocean with me. That we were together once again, standing beneath the sun and watching it slowly fall.

Cole showed up in a lot of different ways that summer. We talked through the words that fell into my journal while we drank Pacificos on the beach. We sang along to Ventura Highway as we drove along the coast, and watched yellow butterflies dance & twirl in the wind. Cole was the kindness I found in random strangers and in the golden sunrises that took my breath away. He was everything; he was everywhere.

As summer came to a close and I pulled out of that narrow driveway one last time, I looked back at my little home away from home and studied the details. The lemon tree, just as bright yet a little less full than when I first arrived. The tired staircase leading up to Carol’s balcony. The hole under the fence that Goose dug on our third day, and the half-buried tennis ball poking out of it. The bouquet of tulips I left sitting on the windowsill; a parting gift to the place that stole a piece of my heart. I drove away thinking that for as big as this world might be, I certainly found something special in just a small part of it.

A few remaining grains of sand in the back of my car and at the bottom of my cooler. A magnet from my favorite local bar, a 22 tattoo on the back of my arm, and my Laguna Beach Public Library card tucked safely in my wallet; small keepsake reminders of the summer I spent in a quiet, magical corner of the world.

Tatumn is a Colorado native, currently living and working as a Marketing Account Manager in Denver. She is passionate about stories, both reading and writing them, and is eager to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. [email protected]

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