Recently we stayed in a motel in San Juan Capistrano. Motels can be fun. They are like a retro treat, something you’d do on a road trip in the ’50s.

The last time I was in San Juan Capistrano, I bought a shirt for a dollar at a “vintage” clothing store and wore it for 10 years. The short-sleeved shirt was seafoam, crisp and resisted dinner stains no matter how hard I tried, and I gave it my best.

That’s a dollar shirt for you. Only the $40 ones stain. The $80 shirts stain before you wear them.

We stayed at a Best Western right off the freeway. I thought freeway noise might be a problem but it was not. The motel walls beat back noise like the $1 shirt did stains.

The plan was to walk across the bridge an hour before dinner, visit the Mission at San Juan Capistrano (well laid-out and bigger than it appears from I-5), and then eat at Sundried Tomato, which was known for its tomato soup, soup worthy of its advanced billing.

Prior to setting out for the evening, each of us freshened up. “Freshening up” can be different for men and women. Women require more time because they have a better chance of improving themselves. A woman starts pretty and after 15 minutes in front of a mirror can become a candidate for a leading lady role opposite Brad Pitt. Women have hope.

Men are pretty much what they are, have what they have and have had it for a while. The more time they spend trying to improve their lie, the greater the chance that they may end up in a two-shot rough.

Men can wash their faces, run a comb through their hair, if they are so blessed, and remain vigilant about their teeth should those be intact, too. All in all, we’re talking a minute, maybe two.

I went first. I stood in front of the large, rectangular mirror and my immediate reaction was a sense of dislocation and confusion.

Who was that poor man staring back at me? He looked as if he had spent the last 20 years in a dungeon and had lost all hope by year 12. His human interaction had been limited to his jailer periodically taking him out in the yard and hitting him with the ugly stick.

That wasn’t me. That couldn’t be me. If that was me, me had a problem.

It had to be the mirror. The kind they have in airports, bus stations and in some motels in San Juan Capistrano. The kind that shows every wrinkle, line, blemish and nodule.

I stepped away from the mirror. I can’t remember if I brushed my teeth but I’m not sure it mattered. When you look like that, and I choose to believe there is a better me out there somewhere, white teeth are not going to stop people from diving behind a bush when you walk by.

I ceded the mirror to Sue, averting my eyes both out of respect for her modesty and in order to put out of my mind what I had just seen when it was my turn.

She took a shorter time than she normally did, something I attributed to having an experience similar to the one I’d had. She finished and we left the room quietly, with our heads down and, if they weren’t down, they should have been.

We talked later that night, neither of us wanting to broach the subject in fear that perhaps we hadn’t had the same experience and only one of us had become unpalatable.

“What did you think of that mirror?” I finally asked between the tomato soup and crispy calamari.

“Horrible,” she said. “I thought maybe we should have dinner in our room.”

We were in this together. For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part no matter what the mirror at the Best Western shows.

Contact Californian columnist Herb Benham at 661-395-7279 or hbenham@ His work appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays; the views expressed are his own.

(1) comment


Hittin' kinda close to home there, Herb!

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