Coming Home

There’s a new fitness center that just opened in my hometown of Laguna Niguel, California. It’s called Lifetime and, according to the woman at the front desk, it is not to be mistaken for a gym—it’s a lifestyle club.

My mom and I sign in. We walk past an organic restaurant, smoothie bar, and a spa and salon combo before we even see the exercise equipment. The scent of heated hair doused in coconut oil dizzies me.

My mom and I choose lockers side-by-side and set our codes on the keypads. I tie my shoes and glance around at the women combing their chemically straightened tresses and slipping into lace thongs. They are normal humans, but all I see are manufactured Amazon queens. High ponytails, neon sports bras, visible triceps, motionless C-cups. I’m struck dumb. My mom wants me to be giddy at the lotion dispensers and grey velvet couches, but I can’t right now.

I haven’t set foot in a place like this—this altar to in-your-face polished beauty—since before I left for France over a year ago. The homogeny is suddenly oppressive. The reality that I’m home, indefinitely this time, stirs panic in my chest.

My mom and I take a class together called Strictly Strength—a bold choice given the fact that my only recent strength had been hunting down the best crêpes in French cities. Within minutes, I’m dripping, and fire is coursing through my thighs. My thoughts drift naturally to my cross-country and track days in high school, when four sets of 25 squats were routine and easy.

When high school practice finished, we used to carpool to I Heart Bagels, where we gulped iced orange juices and toasted everythings with cream cheese. Then we decided upon a beach to meet at and went home to grab volleyballs and change into our suits. We spent long summer days exploring tide-pools, making string bracelets, and sitting in the sand eating watermelon halves with spoons. At night we cruised between El Pollo Loco and the Salt Creek Beach parking lot, where we passed hours talking and listening to mix CDs. One time we set up a massive slip’n slide on the grass hill off PCH, and poured bottles of baby oil and shampoo on the yellow plastic until the police arrived.  

“Okay people, right leg now!” The voice of our petite instructor yelling at us to switch legs brings me back to the present. I glance at the clock; eleven minutes have passed. I peek behind at my mom and catch her eye to make a face that says, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” She widens her eyes in agreement then laughs.

Once the class is over, we head to the smoothie area. I choose a kale and mango combination and my mom picks a citrus one. “I was thinking we could grab lunch at Fashion Island and maybe shop around a bit if you want,” she says.

I nod. “That sounds good. We could sit on the terrace at The Great Maple and order that avocado thing we got last time.”

My mom breaks into a grin. “Yes! Let’s do that,” she says.

As we wave goodbye to the front desk, I’m only half aware that I’m already adjusting to this strange pace. Familiarity fades my memories so expertly that by the time we arrive at the car, France seems like a dream. We drive down Golden Lantern and whiz past immaculate hedges, lane lines that have recently been retouched, and cars with bedazzled license plates that read: “I’d rather be surfing.”

It hits me now that I’ve lost something, and this empty perfection has replaced it.

The road becomes blurry and an overdue tear slides down my cheek. I grab my sunglasses, put them on quickly, and look forward so my mom doesn’t notice.

Photo by Caroline Hummels
Copyright license — used with permission

Paige Smith is a freelance writer and editor from Southern California who specializes in travel, lifestyle and wellness topics. When she's not writing stories and articles, she's planning her next trip. See more of her here