“You live in New York. I’m a Los Angeleno to the core. Want to start a friendly coastal rivalry?”
Those three sentences sparked a whirlwind email romance that brought me to JFK airport one July morning in 2005, boarding a plane to the Los Angeles area with a one-way ticket and a heart full of hope. Everyone thought I was crazy.
I was a 24-year-old editorial assistant at a children’s magazine in New York City. Born and raised in Brooklyn, I was living my dream in the city I loved — and never planned to leave.
Then one afternoon, my editor assigned me a story about Anysoldier.com, through which people can send care packages to troops. I decided to send one and randomly chose John Molamphy, first sergeant of a U.S. Army Cavalry regiment in Iraq.
A month later, I received a thank-you email from John. I told him about the story I’d written. He responded with small talk and the following:
“I was going to tell you good things about my commander, Captain Keith Walters, but he told me I couldn’t go on a mission. Here’s his email, so you can tell him off for me.”
Because I knew nothing about the military, the word “commander” conjured up the image of a really old guy. Maybe the poor geezer is lonely, I thought. So I played along and sent Keith an email, scolding him.
Keith sent a good-natured response. It turned out he was only semi-old — he’d just turned 30. He ended his note by kicking off an epic written battle in which we debated the merits of Los Angeles versus New York: Dodgers versus Mets, Tupac versus Biggie, Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” versus Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.” He quoted the Beach Boys; I quoted Sinatra. Before long, the topics changed to our lives, our interests and our feelings.
So there I was, five months later, waiting at the outdoor baggage claim at Long Beach Airport to finally meet Keith. He’d returned home from Iraq two weeks earlier.
I was a bundle of nerves. But when Keith got out of his car holding a rose, every bit of anxiety melted away. We gave each other a hug and a kiss that felt way more familiar than they should have. He opened the passenger door. I got into the car, said, “What is this crap you’re listening to?” and changed the radio station.
We drove to a Jamba Juice in Santa Monica and drank our Orange Dream Machines on a bench on the Palisades overlooking the pier. That evening we had dinner at JJ’s Steak House in Pasadena, then saw “War of the Worlds.” (Dinner was good; the movie was not.)
The next day, we drove 18 hours to Washington state so Keith could process out of Ft. Lewis. We made it the whole way without killing each other, so I’d say things went pretty well. (We dubbed this method of courtship “instant immersion.”)
Eventually, I had to return to work. Before I left, Keith asked me to move to the Bay Area with him, where he’d attend grad school at Stanford University before heading to West Point, his alma mater, to teach history. “You’re crazy!” I told him. Then I quit my job and moved.
It was a leap of faith that paid off: We were married at West Point in 2009. A year later, we were stationed in Colorado Springs, where Keith deployed to Afghanistan when our twin boys were 2 weeks old. Three months into the deployment, he got shot and was sent home. It was a long recovery.
As Keith’s assignment drew to a close last year, we were both tired of sleepy Colorado and anxious about where we’d end up. Keith pined for L.A. I longed to go back East.
Then one day, he called from work with news: He’d been selected for a fellowship at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica. He was beside himself with glee. I was decidedly less enthusiastic. But I grudgingly agreed to go.
It took only a few weeks of living in Redondo Beach for my tune to change. I’d already known about Southern California’s perfect weather and gorgeous beaches. But I quickly learned that the L.A. area also has all the things I love most about New York. I can still walk to many places, but to a burrito joint and the Redondo Pier rather than a bagel store and a subway station. I can get a great dish of pasta at Bobby’s South Bay Italian or a mouth-watering slice of pizza at Paisanos in Hermosa Beach. And if I want snow, I can head to the mountains.
Sure, I miss New York. But when I’m sitting with my family in the warm sun on the beach in Santa Monica, I feel peaceful and at home. So I guess this is not just a story about a girl falling in love with a boy. It’s also a story about a hard-core New Yorker falling in love with Southern California. And that, for me, is the most surprising love story of all.
Walters is a freelance writer living in Torrance.