You can always tell the California girls from the rest of us. It’s more than their bronzed shoulder blades peeking from between the thin straps of their sundresses, it’s the sundresses themselves. The way they hang carelessly and without self-consciousness. It’s their Melrose boutique providence, and the way they pair as easily with creaky leather huaraches as with matte black Doc Martens. It’s the way California girls know how to take the same sundress (or “piece”, as they call it) and use it to transform themselves from a beachy siren to a pouting club girl armed with only some sea salt spray and a five inch heel.
There is a photo from my first day at college orientation. I’m wearing a secondhand Roxy t-shirt layered over a pink camisole, creating a garish stripe of color between the faded blues of the shirt and my ill-fitting bootcut jeans, which are stuffed into a pair of dusty two-tone cowboy boots with an intricately stitched deep red upper.
I didn’t ride horses; the boots were a bid for belonging in a rodeo town where social life revolved around county fairs and bonfires. Where pretty girls raced dirt bikes and shot at rattlesnakes in the grass.
In Southern California the boots make me back into an outsider; I don’t look like the other girls in the photo. In Southern California fashion is like a second language. I find myself fumbling with the basics, unable to express myself fluently, frequently coming across awkward and uneducated. Without class.
Before parties I ask to borrow from the dorm room closets of my Orange County and Hollywood High School friends, my friends whose moms lived in LA in the nineties and passed down hope chests full of leather jackets and boho moccasins and big Audrey Hepburn sunglasses.
But even in costume I can’t figure out the rules. I don’t know if you can wear sneakers with this dress or not. I don’t know if leggings are pants for me, or only for the skinny girls who carry their green juices like accessories. I study the racks at Goodwill like there will be a test later. When a California girl compliments my thrifted Urban Outfitters clogs, I know I’ve passed. When I go to a party in a Macy’s clearance sale halter dress and their eyes slide over me as easily as satin on skin, I also know.
This is how I learn the language. I send mirror selfies to the group chat. Does this top work belted? Cuffed jeans with these heels or let them hang? Too formal for a first date?
My closet slowly empties of color, all the faded pastel jersey knits replaced with black silk blends and charcoal linen. I keep the red cowboy boots. I try to wear them out only once, make them work. The bored bartender at an open mic downtown glances down and smirks when she sees them. She has a tattoo of the outline of California on her forearm which shivers as she adds
another splash of soda to an already watery G&T. She thinks I’m a tourist. She thinks I’m in Los Angeles to see the Walk Of Fame and Venice Beach and when the city yawns I’ll go back to the Midwest or Florida or wherever.
One day I’m in a basement consignment shop in Silver Lake. They have palo santo burning at the register and big green fiddle leaf fig trees draping over color-coded rows of mostly designer pieces. From the corner, a burst of cherry red leather catches my eye. It’s a pair of riding boots
– early nineties by the looks of them. The kind with laces up the ankle and a fringed tongue peeking out towards the toe.
I think of frosty mornings being driven to school by my aunt, rumbling in late in her beat up Ford with a plastic thermos of instant coffee or Budweiser, depending on her mood. She was a hard woman with a face shrinking around knifelike cheekbones. Permed hair bleached midway between yellow straw and dirty snow. When she spoke it was always from the middle of a sentence, like she didn’t have use for the beginnings of thoughts or ends of words. Seen y’all comin’ in late last night. Don’t think I di’nt. She had the same uniform for football games, weddings, and PTA meetings: a Camel dangling from disappearing lips, Wranglers, starched western button down, and those boots with the fringes worn and curled up away from leather scuffed and burnished in equal measure.
The fringe of the red boots in the consignment shop is still stiff and straight. I wonder what they did to end up here. I wonder if they travelled to Los Angeles on the heels of a hopeful Texas rodeo queen, and if she is the same without them.
There’s no rodeo or miner’s daughter left in the mirror. I am the girl at the gallery opening with the cherry red riding boots. I’ll wear them with black skinny jeans and an oversized band tee. I’ll dress them up with a pair of ripped stockings and a black mini skirt. I’ll make a grungy ensemble with Levis cuffed over the ankle and a flannel slung haphazardly around a bare midriff. A bright lip to tie the look together. Something the color of California.
Misha Scott lives in Los Angeles where she runs a blog called Hullabaloo at the intersection between music and creative writing. Her music writing can be found in Jr Hi Magazine, Gold Flake Paint, and others. This is her first foray into flash fiction.