In Brazil, I felt homesick for the first time. The sensation came to me most often at night, when, after a day spent researching for a book about the grandfather who had deserted my family, I came home to my apartment, a small studio on the eleventh floor, above a seedy strip club rumored to be a brothel. I stood in the cramped kitchen, bathed in fluorescent light, staring at the cold bathroom tile that covered the entire unit. I stirred one of the three pasta sauces I knew how to make. I felt completely, hopelessly alone.
Perhaps I should have expected homesickness. After all, I had just begun a year-long research fellowship in a foreign city, six thousand miles from friends and family in California. My homesickness bewildered me, though, because it elicited a strange internal response. In Rio, I found myself drawn to the loud, boorish Americans I tried to avoid back home—the type that wore American-flag swimsuits and chanted “USA!” at every available opportunity. I also spent hours on Gchat, exchanging emoji-filled correspondence with friends and acquaintances I barely knew. Strangest of all, I became obsessed with Fox’s mid-2000s teen drama television series, The OC.
I don’t remember why exactly I began watching The OC. The show wasn’t critically acclaimed, and in 2015, most of its cult following had faded away. The OC wasn’t easy to watch, either. Because the show was unavailable on any of the ubiquitous streaming platforms, I exposed my computer to viruses from illicit sites that hemorrhaged pop-up windows each time I clicked “play.”
If I had told my friends I liked The OC, I suspect they might have accused me of watching it ironically. The show, which follows four emotionally distraught teenagers in California’s opulent Orange County, is corny, full of lame jokes, far from cool. Nearly every episode begins with a banal premise: a cotillion at the country club, a new employee at the crab shack, a dispute in the family real estate company. No matter how cliché the conceit, however, each episode culminates in high drama: a sucker punch from a debutant dad, a gun shot at a beach party, a model home gone up in flames. Why was I, a twenty-five-year-old who thought of himself as a serious writer, drawn to this teen melodrama?
I wish I could say my enjoyment of the show was ironic. Instead it consumed me. I turned down dinner parties and samba shows to huddle up in bed and watch. I came to consider an episode of The OC as a kind of nightcap, an appropriate treat after a day of staring at my grandfather’s photographs and reading through his old journals. Inevitably, though, the nightcap would become addictive. I’d watch not one episode, but two or three, and then I’d watch beachside interviews with the show’s stars, those beautiful twenty-somethings immersed in the idyllic, juvenile world of the show. On more than one occasion, the night sky turned grey and gold beyond my sheer curtains, and I teared up as Ryan Atwood carried Marissa Cooper’s fragile body to a soundtrack of coy, indie whisper-singing.
As I watched, the show triggered memories from the time of its release twelve years earlier. I remembered the excitement it generated at my San Francisco high school, where the Cool Freshmen circled up before first period to debrief an episode from the night before. In those days, I was on the outside looking in, a puny kid from the suburbs who wasn’t allowed to watch TV during the school week. In a way, I was not unlike The OC’s Seth Cohen, a poofy-haired skateboarder who led Harbor High’s Comic Book and Chess clubs while remaining entirely anonymous to the school’s popular circle.
Though I barely watched an episode of The OC while in high school, I was aware of Seth’s impact. In the conversations I overheard in the hallways, Seth’s witticisms were always a focal point—his sidesplitting jokes about the oafish water polo players, his ingenious interfaith portmanteau, “Christmakkuh.” Before long, Seth seemed to completely overshadow the hunky, brooding protagonist, Ryan. I reveled in the possibilities. Seth was a misfit like me: he was skinny and liked indie rock and wore pants so tight he probably bought them in the women’s section. (This was 2004, before the rise of the skinny jean). It was only natural to imagine that, as Seth’s standing rose in the eyes of my high school’s popular crowd, mine might too. That was it: in 2004, The OC epitomized the hope that, just like my fictional double, I would someday gain acceptance.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from writing nonfiction, it’s that memory is fickle. In the throes of nostalgia, the remembered past becomes something entirely different from the events as they unfolded. The process of recollecting glorifies some moments, while entirely omitting others. I find the flaws of memory best reflected in the Portuguese word saudade, a term that non-Lusophone writers love because it offers no direct translation. Some have defined saudade as the bittersweet feeling that longing inspires, a pleasure you suffer, the presence of absence. A favorite definition that I’ve heard is “a longing for something that never existed.” This sentiment confirms something I hold as true: the past we long for never existed exactly the way we remember it. Was the camaraderie I witnessed among the popular kids at my high school really as enviable as I recall? Probably not. I suppose it’s unsurprising that the Portuguese word for “homesick” (saudoso) shares a root with saudade. Homesickness also involves a kind of invention—just like other remembered spaces, the home we long for is an idealized one we dream up and exalt while we’re far away.
In watching Seth Cohen, I suppose I felt something close to saudade. Our lives were parallel, and they were not. While I called the foggy hills of Northern California home, Seth came from a sunny Southern California beach paradise. While I remained an outsider throughout high school, Seth won the heart of Harbor High’s prom queen, whom he (spoiler alert) went on to marry in the show’s final episode. Though I suspect the creators of The OC designed Seth as a proxy for privileged white boys who didn’t quite fit in, his world of infinity pools and diamond studded galas reflected a reality that eluded nearly all of us. In this way, his life represented an idealized version of our own, a world we could always long for, but which would never exist.
Perhaps I came closest to living my Seth Cohen fantasy in Brazil. Although my apartment was a hovel, my research on my estranged grandfather—a photographer of Brazilian celebrities— granted me access to the kind of glamorous parties that Seth Cohen gleefully rolled his eyes at. One night, I found myself at a long banquet table seated between a Brazilian supermodel and a British businessman. Their conversation about favorite vacation spots sounded like a competition for who could most accurately pronounce the word Ibiza. (Apparently, a hard “TH”—ee-bee-THa—is essential). As the resort critics prattled on, I couldn’t help but wonder what quip Seth Cohen would conjure to make fun of them.
Like the characters on the The OC, I lived close to the beach, less than a block away. As I completed my daily walk on Copacabana’s beachside boulevard, I imagined myself as a character on the show, idly gossiping in the sand, skateboarding to my favorite band’s concert at The Bait Shop. At the time, I was the same age as actor Adam Brody when he played Seth Cohen, and I felt that I carried myself with a similar gangly confidence. As I walked, I’d roll my shoulders back and settle into a kind of ridiculous strut. Occasionally, I’d cast an approving glance at my reflection in the window of a parked car or in the glass facade of a high rise. In my knock-off Ray-Bans and skinny jean cut-off shorts, I felt that I had made it—a testament to twelve years of cultural shifts. By the time I moved to Rio, our type had become entirely mainstream. “Oh, you’re American?” a local might ask me. “Do you like Arctic Monkeys?” I felt thoroughly accepted for the way I looked, dressed, and acted.
If I had achieved my OC dream in Rio, though, why did I feel homesick? For every afternoon I spent confidently bronzing my bony arms, there was another day hijacked by unpredictability. One morning, I bussed across town to interview someone who never showed up. A miscommunication. With the plan shot, I visited the museum that held my grandfather’s photographic collection. In a cold, antiseptic room, I stared at photographs of bedazzled stars I did not recognize, my grandfather’s friends, the ones he traded his family for. On the way home that night, I looked out the window of an unmoving, empty bus and realized that all around me was more of the same; I was sitting in a traffic jam of bumper-to-bumper empty buses. On a day like that, all I looked forward to was an episode of The OC. As I sunk into its consistent world—Harbor High School, The Bait Shop, Seth, Summer, Ryan, Marissa—I latched onto something as familiar as it was distant: a home, as vague and illusory as every other.