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They came to look for America

Hannah (left) and Kirsten try a Philly cheese steak at the Harbor House.
Hannah (left) and Kirsten try a Philly cheese steak at the Harbor House.

So over the last 3 1/2 days our family hosted two 17-year-old women visiting America with their South African water polo team.

The squad started its 2 1/2-week adventure in San Francisco, then drove down to SoCal for a series of games, practices, tourist activities. The 13 players were housed with different families, and we were blessed to land Hannah and Kirsten. Two young women whose presence—and I say this sans exaggeration—it turns out we genuinely needed.

They were here as athletes. But, really, they were here to look for America. To see and taste and buy and feel and smell. On their first night, all they wanted to eat (more than anything in the world) was Taco Bell, a franchise that apparently doesn’t exist in South Africa. So we pulled up to the drive-thru, and what followed (mediocre Grade-D Mexican to you and I) was bliss. They loved it. Fucking loooooooved it. Gorged down their heated-over burritos and dime-a-dozen tacos as if it were the finest of cuisines. The next night was even better. I took them to our favorite diner, the Harbor House, where they split orders of chicken and biscuits and gravy and a Philly cheese steak. Hannah and Kirsten were a bit torn on the poultry portion—the gravy is white and thick and something of an acquired taste. But the Philly steak. Whoa. Jesus Christ. At one point Hannah said, sans any apparent exaggeration, “This is the greatest moment of my life.”

Kirsten nodded. Again, without exaggeration.

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Their entire stay was an electrifying reminder of how damn lucky we are. Yesterday the wife ferried them to Irvine for soup dumplings, then this quirky/fabulous fish ice cream. Hannah told me it was the most delicious dessert she’d ever had (which isn’t surprising considering it’s one of the most delicious desserts I’ve ever had, too). They also went shopping—to an enormous Goodwill thrift store. And, once again, the results were breathtaking. Hannah and Kirsten returned home with shirts, shorts, sweatshirts. They couldn’t believe the prices, the scope. They loved the dig.

This morning I took them to 7-Eleven (“So this Slurpee, is it like an iced drink?”), Costco (“Does anyone eat that much mayonnaise?”) and 5 Below, from which they (and several of the other visitors who tagged along) emerged with a Grand Canyon-level supply of candy. I watched them walk the aisles, mesmerized by their inquisitiveness. Is all this available? Is it really available?

In case this sounds purely materialistic, it wasn’t. Nope. Truly, throughout their stay Hannah and Kirsten’s eyes were as wide as Oreo cookies. They were captivated; a youthful wonder that—at age 47—now only flickers through my mind. By the drive along the Pacific Coast Highway. By the scent of fresh dumplings. By this idea (unspoken but still real) that in the United States of America, anything remains possible and dreams can become reality.

As we suffer through the most divided populace of my lifetime, with a huckster president dead set on trying to steal Independence Day from America and make it about himself, I needed Hannah and Kirsten to remind me that—even in the darkest times—our country retains its spark.

Retains its zest.

•••

PS: This one’s for our departed visitors …

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