Marissa presses the tip of her cigarette against Ryan’s to light it and it’s more intimate than any kiss I’ve ever seen or experienced. Ryan says he’ll be whoever she wants him to be and he seems to really mean it. I will watch this scene over and over again, and it will be new each time.
Seth is sixteen, but has the personality of someone who’s either twelve or sixty: a precocious curmudgeon. Kirsten’s “hollow leg” is still a punch line, making up for her steely persona in early episodes. Sandy gets all the best lines and I want him to be my dad. Summer and Julie are still supporting characters.
It’s season one, and high school sophomores take road trips to Tijuana where Marissa OD’s, but we know she’ll be okay because it’s too soon for her to go. Everything has a soundtrack behind it so we can feel the right emotions.
I am sixteen. I start watching The O.C. while on summer break. I’m watching Adam Brody play me, and Rachel Bilson play the girl I’ve been looking for my whole life. It’s the episode where they have sex for the first time, and I am acutely aware of the fact that I am still a virgin. Knowing it can happen to Seth gives me hope. The show offers a whole new world for me, one where people are rich and beautiful and it’s warm all year long. My Midwest life feels small and insignificant by comparison. Like most of my friends at the small private school I attend, I’m coasting through my teen years with no real plan for college or a career. The future is far away and the path is endless.
A year passes and Marissa is a lesbian. Kim Delaney guest stars as Sandy’s ex-lover who’s been on the run for twenty years, but always wears designer clothes. We learn that Julie made a porno in the 80’s, and there’s a cautionary tale to learn from this indiscretion. It becomes a metaphor for that one secret that, try as you might, you can’t keep hidden forever. I wonder what my 80’s porno will be.
I am seventeen and Kirsten has a drinking problem. I’ve never been drunk, never tasted alcohol beyond a sip of wine at Christmas, but I crave an ice-cold tumbler of vodka like the ones Kirsten throws back at the end of season two. My mother wants to convince me that drinking is bad so she buys a bottle of Absolut, sticks it in the freezer overnight, and pours me a glass before dinner. I choke on the first sip. I don’t know how Kirsten and Marissa can drink so much. I don’t think about how their glasses and flasks are filled with water. Later that week I’ll pour some vodka into a glass of orange juice—not enough to get me drunk, but enough to make me feel like I’m getting away with something.
Between junior and senior year I enroll at the sprawling public school in my hometown in an attempt to escape bullies and an oncoming nervous breakdown. My new school reminds me of the Harbor School: every day is a fashion show. I love this. I only wish that we had a coffee cart for me to stand on and profess my love to the girl I think of as my Summer. She is short and brunette and has hazel eyes that always catch me by surprise. She’s smart and bubbly like Summer, but she’s mean to me, and not in the funny way that Summer is mean to Seth. There is another girl too, also on our school newspaper staff with my Summer and me, that everyone says looks like Marissa. She becomes my best friend; I never think to tell her that she is. Later, much later, I find out she had feelings for me. It would take me years to realize that I had chosen the wrong Summer. Looking the part and playing it are two different things.
For school pictures I wear a suit and tie, but want to leave the top button undone like Sandy does with his shirts. My mother says this is unacceptable. She watches me while I get my pictures taken so I don’t undo that top button. Everything feels confining as I slog through senior year, and popping a button seems like a small rebellion. I’m thinking of becoming a public defender like Sandy, as I’ve always loved the plight of the underdog. My style is a mash up of Seth and Sandy: brown and orange striped shirts with brown suede blazers for formal occasions; blue collared shirts and track jackets during the week. I shop at stores in the local mall that have west coast themes and buy cheap stainless steel watches that develop scratches within days of purchase. I wear leather bracelets that skate up and down my skinny wrists, and necklaces with crosses that have nothing to do with religion. I trade my red backpack for a messenger bag made of a camel-colored canvas. I think I am so cool.
My friend who looks like Marissa invites me to watch the season three premiere with her and some friends. She’s in the garage looking at kittens when I arrive, so I sit in a room full of people I don’t know and stare at a spot on the wall. I feel like Seth, but without the witty banter.
Season three is bad. The show has turned into a soap, and Josh Schwartz will later apologize for his decision to take the show in this direction. There is a trembling in this season, a tension indicating that things will have to change. People don’t like it; it seems too far-fetched. Looking back it didn’t really feel that way to me—it felt like my life.
Julie takes pills in the morning to make the pain go away. I watch her watch herself in the mirror, and I get a sore feeling in the back of my throat. Seth works at the comic book store waiting for his life to restart. Summer is a freshman at Brown and protests for animal rights. She is the girl who surprises everyone. Ryan cage fights while Sandy tries to rescue him again. Somehow Kirsten manages to stay sober.
It is season four. This is not how things were supposed to go. We were supposed to see Marissa in a wedding dress, Jimmy giving her away, Ryan standing at the altar. This was the life we imagined for them, for ourselves. I remember my high school lovers vividly, or rather, the girls I loved in high school—only some loved me back.
I am eighteen and it is my freshman year of college. I am lonely. My Summer broke up with me even though we were never really together, and my friends from home don’t seem to return my calls. People keep telling me that things will get better, but I’m a good two years away from finding out that they’re right. My life will get better, and all the episode plots and song lyrics will end up being true, for better or worse.
As an adult I decide to rewatch the series because I am feeling lost and the show helped me feel grounded in my youth. I did not become a public defender or an architect or any of the things people were on the show or that I envisioned for myself. Instead I followed my own path, which I suppose is what Sandy and Ryan would have wanted me to do. I pull my old DVD sets from a banker’s box and drink vodka out of nostalgia. I feel every spark of joy and sorrow keenly. I sit on the kitchen floor of my apartment and sob after Marissa dies. Her death hits me harder now than it did in high school. I think of my Marissa, and the pictures I’ve seen of her with her husband and babies. Watching Ryan carry her limp body away from the car, some lingering vestige of my childhood flickers out. I am twenty-seven, just two years older than Ben McKenzie his first season on the show. He seemed so grownup at the time, too old to be a teenager, but now I realize he was just a kid being whoever he wanted to be, reminding me that I could do the same.
Patrick Thornton is a 2015 graduate of Columbia College Chicago’s Creative Nonfiction Program. He currently splits his time between Chicago and Northwest Indiana, and spends a lot of time writing on the train. His work has previously appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Redivider, and Ghost Proposal among others.