I can tell I’m getting older because the bare-faced stars of Hollywood no longer hold any appeal for me. I look at pictures of Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber grasping pinky fingers and I feel nothing — no envy, no desire, just the curious energy of a zookeeper looking in on a foreign species of baby dolphin.
I’ve put off watching “Laguna Beach” (the real Orange County) for a while now because I never felt I could understand it. What did I have in common with a cluster of busty, bubble-headed youths? I’m not from California and have never glided atop a surfboard to the torch songs of Hilary Duff. Little did I know this show would come to represent all that my formative years were, and might have been.
“Laguna Beach” is the great Greek tragedy of a sexuality discovered and lost. Exploring each other’s nether regions, head atop bare chest, skin grazing skin, the teenagers of “Laguna Beach” leave lust marks on each other’s bodies, uttering words which feel new and true and blue. Drinks flow free, ice cubes clinking at the sides of crystal decanters.
Its Icarus, fittingly, is the pink-lipped, cherubic Stephen Colletti, whose toughest decision in life is choosing which golden, saltwater goddess, LC or Kristin, he wants to “hook up” with. In the show’s intro, Kristin emerges from the pool, hair slicked back, beads of water clinging to her scarlet bikini. We see the scene, again and again, like a tape recorder in perpetual rewind. The sun paints shadows on tanned, heaving bodies and the sky is the color of cocktails.
Teen dramas, my desert island staple, have long depended on 30-year-olds playing 17-year-olds because the real 17-year-olds are too stupid to properly assess their generation — or so the thinking goes. But something that MTV has understood throughout its bumpy existence, from “Jersey Shore” to “Room Raiders” to “Awkward,” is that clever words aren’t the best indicators of honesty. There’s a rush of familiarity in watching these real 17-year-olds flicker and touch, because the show is not concerned with what’s right but with what exists. Just being. Teenager-hood is about vapid stares and empty spaces, and “Laguna Beach” is perhaps all the more potent because that’s all it is.
“Kristin’s a really good girl to hook up with and have fun with,” Stephen says in an early episode, black tufts of hair artlessly ruffled by the wind. “And that’s why I’m so amped on her. And I love, like — we can just have like so much fun. But coming down like the boyfriend and girlfriend stuff, it’s, like, Lauren would be like a better girl.”
The words feel less Valley Girl and more emblematic of an eternal truth.
Stephen picks Kristin, as he should, while Lauren looks on and bites her lip.
I’ve seen pictures of Stephen now, and at 24, he’s a veritable geriatric, dating some silicone gal from a Jonas Brothers movie and insinuating his way into whatever guest star roles he can eke out of his short-lived fame. Kristin and LC also look a little worse for the wear, as if their tanning beds had crackled out a few too many times. High school was the sun-kissed zenith of their existences, and every year trailing in its wake an everlasting backslide.
Were these teenagers missing out on something vital about life, or had they figured out one of its greatest secrets? Are we really any different from the characters of “Laguna Beach,” our finest moments spent in the transitory halos of our high-school-senior years? First loves, first times. Stolen kisses in the orchestra room. Late nights in the parking lot of a movie theater. Maybe we are all kidding ourselves when we say the best years of our lives age like wine. Maybe life actually ends when you’re 18.
In two years I’ll be exchanging my graduation tassels for a white coat and the Hippocratic Oath, and in another four I’ll be responsible for the lives of others. In these twilight hours of our youth, Nabokov’s words ring out the loudest: “… and the rest is rust and stardust.”