Two international students share yet another sleep-deprived conversation at the convergence of night and morning, and amidst the haze, bring up how so-and-so are going on a trip the next day. Something lights up with a clarity that manages to pierce through the cloud of fatigue.

We gotta go to Santa Cruz. 

At the tail end of a week of vague intentions and dilly-dallying, half-functional plans are hastily thrown together. Through a typical college Saturday night of dancing and greasy food, it doesn’t look like we’re actually going to make it to the beach on Sunday. But somehow, with the kind of beautiful solidarity that means the timely risers go around knocking on the others’ doors in the morning, we’re all up in time and ready to leave.

After a long walk to the station, a Caltrain ride, and an overpriced bus trip which has the same international students complaining about this country, it’s well past noon by the time we catch sight of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. This is exactly what we imagined California would look like (feel like); we’ve seen it in the movies. Glorious primary colors and rusty roller coasters evoke a kind of nostalgia for a culture I was never even a part of. The sun hits warm, and it’s impossible to keep a little childlike bounce from my steps.

The rides are underwhelming, but it’s perfect this way, just like how carnival games should have crappy prizes. This feels like a different universe, totally set apart from our lives at home and at school, both of which carry their own worlds of burdens. I marvel at signs that advertise foreign delicacies: deep-fried everything, from artichoke hearts to twinkies.

We assemble the optimal combination of rides and head straight for the Giant Dipper, their biggest roller coaster. I wouldn’t really call it giant, but it surprises us by plunging us into pitch darkness as soon as it starts, which feels like an appropriate metaphor for something. Once the car races out into the light, the rest of the ride is windy, bumpy, and joyfully chaotic. We double over in laughter at the pictures they snapped mid-fall. The next ride we find looks positively nauseating—Fireball, a back-and-forth spinning pendulum—so of course we go for it. It’s fun, possibly even better than the previous one, but we suffer the consequences and need to sit down to alleviate a collective vertigo.

We spend a moment in silence, looking out towards the beach. The general noisiness of the situation has died just as quickly as it had flared. The movement of the water is at once calming and stirring; a friend and I exchange a glance. I’ll go in the water if you do. For the moment, we’re the only ones excited enough to get our feet dirty and jeans wet. When the water hits, it’s freezing. Our toes grow numb and we run into each incoming wave, one after the other. We point it out when a particularly magnificent wave is about to break. The warm sand feels heavenly on our bare feet when we get out. Soon enough, we’re able to convince everyone else to join us. Someone does a cartwheel. We enjoy this like we have never seen the ocean before. Like the internet doesn’t exist. Like we haven’t been calloused against a barrage of images. We enjoy this like the world has never been made virtual.

We spend some time failing pretty spectacularly at a variety of games, then head into a cheesy horror house ride full of squeaky pop-up halloween costumes. Before the car even starts moving, my friends make it really clear the next few minutes will be full of ironic screaming. One pretends to freak out, and the lady operating the ride leans over and clarifies that “it’s really not that scary”. The hilarity continues through the ride, and I manage to catch an 18-second video of the shenanigans. I’ve been snapping pictures all day. I wonder what makes me so obsessed with documentation, and whether my photos, letters, and blog posts should really just be classified as emotional hoarding behavior. I wonder if I harbor a deep-seated distrust for the passage of time, a denial of the fact that some things must be forgotten and helplessly lost. Maybe I’m trying so hard to appreciate the moment that I never live in the present but in the future, as if I am already desperately grasping at a fading youth.

But as much as the here and now will eventually fade, it is defined by what has not yet dipped under the horizon. And so we walk a mile for Mexican food. And so we put hot sauce on everything. And so we stubbornly cram four bodies into the back seat of an Uber, hope the driver doesn’t kick us out, and suppress our giggles when he doesn’t say anything. I’m behind on schoolwork and spent too much money today. I forget about death a little more completely. The world is all stolen paintings and the color orange.